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´╗┐Title: Madame Midas
Author: Hume, Fergus, 1859-1932
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Madame Midas" ***

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MADAME MIDAS

Fergus Hume



PROLOGUE



CAST UP BY THE SEA


A wild bleak-looking coast, with huge water-worn promontories jutting
out into the sea, daring the tempestuous fury of the waves, which dashed
furiously in sheets of seething foam against the iron rocks. Two of
these headlands ran out for a considerable distance, and at the base of
each, ragged cruel-looking rocks stretched still further out into the
ocean until they entirely disappeared beneath the heaving waste of
waters, and only the sudden line of white foam every now and then
streaking the dark green waves betrayed their treacherous presence to
the idle eye. Between these two headlands there was about half a mile of
yellow sandy beach on which the waves rolled with a dull roar, fringing
the wet sands with many coloured wreaths of sea-weed and delicate
shells. At the back the cliffs rose in a kind of semi-circle, black and
precipitous, to the height of about a hundred feet, and flocks of white
seagulls who had their nests therein were constantly circling round, or
flying seaward with steadily expanded wings and discordant cries. At the
top of these inhospitable-looking cliffs a line of pale green betrayed
the presence of vegetation, and from thence it spread inland into
vast-rolling pastures ending far away at the outskirts of the bush,
above which could be seen giant mountains with snow-covered ranges. Over
all this strange contrast of savage arid coast and peaceful upland there
was a glaring red sky--not the delicate evanescent pink of an ordinary
sunset--but a fierce angry crimson which turned the wet sands and dark
expanse of ocean into the colour of blood. Far away westward, where
the sun--a molten ball of fire--was sinking behind the snow-clad peaks,
frowned long lines of gloomy clouds--like prison bars through which the
sinking orb glowed fiercely. Rising from the east to the zenith of the
sky was a huge black cloud bearing a curious resemblance to a gigantic
hand, the long lean fingers of which were stretched threateningly out
as if to grasp the land and drag it back into the lurid sea of blood;
altogether a cruel, weird-looking scene, fantastic, unreal, and bizarre
as one of Dore's marvellous conceptions. Suddenly on the red waters
there appeared a black speck, rising and falling with the restless
waves, and ever drawing nearer and nearer to the gloomy cliffs and sandy
beach. When within a quarter of a mile of the shore, the speck resolved
itself into a boat, a mere shallop, painted a dingy white, and much
battered by the waves as it tossed lightly on the crimson waters. It had
one mast and a small sail all torn and patched, which by some miracle
held together, and swelling out to the wind drew the boat nearer to the
land. In this frail craft were two men, one of whom was kneeling in the
prow of the boat shading his eyes from the sunlight with his hands and
gazing eagerly at the cliffs, while the other sat in the centre with
bowed head, in an attitude of sullen resignation, holding the straining
sail by a stout rope twisted round his arm. Neither of them spoke a word
till within a short distance of the beach, when the man at the
look-out arose, tall and gaunt, and stretched out his hands to the
inhospitable-looking coast with a harsh, exulting laugh.

'At last,' he cried, in a hoarse, strained voice, and in a foreign
tongue; 'freedom at last.'

The other man made no comment on this outburst of his companion, but
kept his eyes steadfastly on the bottom of the boat, where lay a small
barrel and a bag of mouldy biscuits, the remnants of their provisions on
the voyage.

The man who had spoken evidently did not expect an answer from his
companion, for he did not even turn his head to look at him, but stood
with folded arms gazing eagerly ahead, until, with a sudden rush, the
boat drove up high and dry on the shore, sending him head-over-heels
into the wet sand. He struggled to his feet quickly, and, running up the
beach a little way, turned to see how his companion had fared. The
other had fallen into the sea, but had picked himself up, and was busily
engaged in wringing the water from his coarse clothing. There was a
smooth water-worn boulder on the beach, and, seeing this, the man who
had spoken went up to it and sat down thereon, while his companion,
evidently of a more practical turn of mind, collected the stale biscuits
which had fallen out of the bag, then, taking the barrel carefully on
his shoulder, walked up to where the other was sitting, and threw both
biscuits and barrel at his feet.

He then flung himself wearily on the sand, and picking up a biscuit
began to munch it steadily. The other drew a tin pannikin from the bosom
of his shirt, and nodded his head towards the barrel, upon which the
eater laid down his biscuit, and, taking up the barrel, drew the bung,
and let a few drops of water trickle into the tin dish. The man on the
boulder drank every drop, then threw the pannikin down on the sand,
while his companion, who had exhausted the contents of the barrel,
looked wolfishly at him. The other, however, did not take the slightest
notice of his friend's lowering looks, but began to eat a biscuit and
look around him. There was a strong contrast between these two waifs of
the sea which the ocean had just thrown up on the desolate coast. The
man on the boulder was a tall, slightly-built young fellow, apparently
about thirty years of age, with leonine masses of reddish-coloured
hair, and a short, stubbly beard of the same tint. His face, pale and
attenuated by famine, looked sharp and clever; and his eyes, forming
a strong contrast to his hair, were quite black, with thin,
delicately-drawn eyebrows above them. They scintillated with a peculiar
light which, though not offensive, yet gave anyone looking at him an
uncomfortable feeling of insecurity. The young man's hands, though
hardened and discoloured, were yet finely formed, while even the coarse,
heavy boots he wore could not disguise the delicacy of his feet. He was
dressed in a rough blue suit of clothes, all torn and much stained by
sea water, and his head was covered with a red cap of wool-work which
rested lightly on his tangled masses of hair. After a time he tossed
aside the biscuit he was eating, and looked down at his companion with
a cynical smile. The man at his feet was a rough, heavy-looking fellow,
squarely and massively built, with black hair and a heavy beard of the
same sombre hue. His hands were long and sinewy; his feet--which were
bare--large and ungainly: and his whole appearance was that of a man in
a low station of life. No one could have told the colour of his eyes,
for he looked obstinately at the ground; and the expression of his
face was so sullen and forbidding that altogether he appeared to be an
exceedingly unpleasant individual. His companion eyed him for a short
time in a cool, calculating manner, and then rose painfully to his feet.

'So,' he said rapidly in French, waving his hand towards the frowning
cliffs, 'so, my Pierre, we are in the land of promise; though I must
confess'--with a disparaging shrug of the shoulders--'it certainly
does not look very promising: still, we are on dry land, and that is
something after tossing about so long in that stupid boat, with only a
plank between us and death. Bah!'--with another expressive shrug--'why
should I call it stupid? It has carried us all the way from New
Caledonia, that hell upon earth, and landed us safely in what may turn
out Paradise. We must not be ungrateful to the bridge that carried us
over--eh, my friend?'

The man addressed as Pierre nodded an assent, then pointed towards the
boat; the other looked up and saw that the tide had risen, and that the
boat was drifting slowly away from the land.

'It goes,' he said coolly, 'back again to its proper owner, I suppose.
Well, let it. We have no further need of it, for, like Caesar, we have
now crossed the Rubicon. We are no longer convicts from a French
prison, my friend, but shipwrecked sailors; you hear?'--with a sudden
scintillation from his black eyes--'shipwrecked sailors; and I will tell
the story of the wreck. Luckily, I can depend on your discretion, as you
have not even a tongue to contradict, which you wouldn't do if you had.'

The dumb man rose slowly to his feet, and pointed to the cliffs frowning
above them. The other answered his thought with a careless shrug of the
shoulders.

'We must climb,' he said lightly, 'and let us hope the top will prove
less inhospitable than this place. Where we are I don't know, except
that this is Australia; there is gold here, my friend, and we must get
our share of it. We will match our Gallic wit against these English
fools, and see who comes off best. You have strength, I have brains;
so we will do great things; but'--laying his hand impressively on the
other's breast--'no quarter, no yielding, you see!'

The dumb man nodded violently, and rubbed his ungainly hands together in
delight.

'You don't know Balzac, my friend,' went on the young man in a
conversational tone, 'or I would tell you that, like Rastignac, war
is declared between ourselves and society; but if you have not the
knowledge you have the will, and that is enough for me. Come, let us
make the first step towards our wealth;' and without casting a glance
behind him, he turned and walked towards the nearest headland, followed
by the dumb man with bent head and slouching gait.

The rain and wind had been at work on this promontory, and their
combined action had broken off great masses of rock, which lay in rugged
confusion at the base. This offered painful but secure foothold, and
the two adventurers, with much labour--for they were weak with the
privations endured on the voyage from New Caledonia--managed to climb
half way up the cliff, when they stopped to take breath and look around
them. They were now in a perilous position, for, hanging as they were
on a narrow ledge of rock midway between earth and sky, the least slip
would have cost them their lives. The great mass of rock which frowned
above them was nearly perpendicular, yet offered here and there certain
facilities for climbing, though to do so looked like certain death. The
men, however, were quite reckless, and knew if they could get to the
top they would be safe, so they determined to attempt the rest of the
ascent.

'As we have not the wings of eagles, friend Pierre,' said the younger
man, glancing around, 'we must climb where we can find foothold. God
will protect us; if not,' with a sneer, 'the Devil always looks after
his own.'

He crept along the narrow ledge and scrambled with great difficulty into
a niche above, holding on by the weeds and sparse grass which grew out
of the crannies of the barren crag. Followed by his companion, he went
steadily up, clinging to projecting rocks--long trails of tough grass
and anything else he could hold on to. Every now and then some seabird
would dash out into their faces with wild cries, and nearly cause them
to lose their foothold in the sudden start. Then the herbage began to
get more luxurious, and the cliff to slope in an easy incline, which
made the latter part of their ascent much easier. At last, after half an
hour's hard work, they managed to get to the top, and threw themselves
breathlessly on the short dry grass which fringed the rough cliff. Lying
there half fainting with fatigue and hunger, they could hear, as in
a confused dream, the drowsy thunder of the waves below, and the
discordant cries of the sea-gulls circling round their nests, to which
they had not yet returned. The rest did them good, and in a short time
they were able to rise to their feet and survey the situation. In front
was the sea, and at the back the grassy undulating country, dotted here
and there with clumps of trees now becoming faint and indistinct in the
rapidly falling shadows of the night. They could also see horses and
cattle moving in the distant fields, which showed that there must be
some human habitation near, and suddenly from a far distant house which
they had not observed shone a bright light, which became to these weary
waifs of the ocean a star of hope.

They looked at one another in silence, and then the young man turned
towards the ocean again.

'Behind,' he said, pointing to the east, 'lies a French prison and two
ruined lives--yours and mine--but in front,' swinging round to the rich
fields, 'there is fortune, food, and freedom. Come, my friend, let us
follow that light, which is our star of hope, and who knows what glory
may await us. The old life is dead, and we start our lives in this
new world with all the bitter experiences of the old to teach us
wisdom--come!' And without another word he walked slowly down the slope
towards the inland, followed by the dumb man with his head still bent
and his air of sullen resignation.

The sun disappeared behind the snowy ranges--night drew a grey veil over
the sky as the red light died out, and here and there the stars
were shining. The seabirds sought their nests again and ceased their
discordant cries--the boat which had brought the adventurers to shore
drifted slowly out to sea, while the great black hand that rose from
the eastward stretched out threateningly towards the two men tramping
steadily onward through the dewy grass, as though it would have drawn
them back again to the prison from whence they had so miraculously
escaped.



CHAPTER I

THE PACTOLUS CLAIM


In the early days of Australia, when the gold fever was at its height,
and the marvellous Melbourne of to-day was more like an enlarged camp
than anything else, there was a man called Robert Curtis, who arrived
in the new land of Ophir with many others to seek his fortune. Mr Curtis
was of good family, but having been expelled from Oxford for holding
certain unorthodox opinions quite at variance with the accepted
theological tenets of the University, he had added to his crime by
marrying a pretty girl, whose face was her fortune, and who was born,
as the story books say, of poor but honest parents. Poverty and honesty,
however, were not sufficient recommendations in the eyes of Mr Curtis,
senior, to excuse such a match; so he promptly followed the precedent
set by Oxford, and expelled his son from the family circle. That young
gentleman and his wife came out to Australia filled with ambitious
dreams of acquiring a fortune, and then of returning to heap coals of
fire on the heads of those who had turned them out.

These dreams, however, were destined never to be realised, for within a
year after their arrival in Melbourne Mrs Curtis died giving birth to
a little girl, and Robert Curtis found himself once more alone in the
world with the encumbrance of a small child. He, however, was not a man
who wore his heart on his sleeve, and did not show much outward grief,
though, no doubt, he sorrowed deeply enough for the loss of the pretty
girl for whom he had sacrificed so much. At all events, he made up his
mind at once what to do: so, placing his child under the care of an old
lady, he went to Ballarat, and set to work to make his fortune.

While there his luck became proverbial, and he soon found himself a rich
man; but this did not satisfy him, for, being of a far-seeing nature, he
saw the important part Australia would play in the world's history. So
with the gold won by his pick he bought land everywhere, and especially
in Melbourne, which was even then becoming metropolitan. After fifteen
years of a varied life he returned to Melbourne to settle down, and
found that his daughter had grown up to be a charming young girl, the
very image of his late wife. Curtis built a house, went in for politics,
and soon became a famous man in his adopted country. He settled a large
sum of money on his daughter absolutely, which no one, not even her
future husband, could touch, and introduced her to society.

Miss Curtis became the belle of Melbourne, and her charming face,
together with the more substantial beauties of wealth, soon brought
crowds of suitors around her. Her father, however, determined to find
a husband for her whom he could trust, and was looking for one when he
suddenly died of heart disease, leaving his daughter an orphan and a
wealthy woman.

After Mr Curtis had been buried by the side of his dead wife, the
heiress went home to her richly-furnished house, and after passing a
certain period in mourning, engaged a companion, and once more took her
position in society.

Her suitors--numerous and persistent as those of Penelope--soon returned
to her feet, and she found she could choose a husband from men of all
kinds--rich and poor, handsome and ugly, old and young. One of these,
a penniless young Englishman, called Randolph Villiers, payed her such
marked attention, that in the end Miss Curtis, contrary to the wishes of
her friends, married him.

Mr Villiers had a handsome face and figure, a varied and extensive
wardrobe, and a bad character. He, however, suppressed his real tastes
until he became the husband of Miss Curtis, and holder of the purse--for
such was the love his wife bore him that she unhesitatingly gave him
full control of all her property, excepting that which was settled on
herself by her father, which was, of course, beyond marital control. In
vain her friends urged some settlement should be made before marriage.
Miss Curtis argued that to take any steps to protect her fortune would
show a want of faith in the honesty of the man she loved, so went to the
altar and reversed the marriage service by endowing Mr Randolph Villiers
with all her worldly goods.

The result of this blind confidence justified the warnings of her
friends--for as soon as Villiers found himself in full possession of his
wife's fortune, he immediately proceeded to spend all the money he
could lay his hands on. He gambled away large sums at his club, betted
extensively on the turf, kept open house, and finally became entangled
with a lady whose looks were much better than her morals, and whose
capacity for spending money so far exceeded his own that in two years
she completely ruined him. Mrs Villiers put up with this conduct for
some time, as she was too proud to acknowledge she had made a mistake
in her choice of a husband; but when Villiers, after spending all her
wealth in riotous living, actually proceeded to ill-treat her in order
to force her to give up the money her father had settled on her, she
rebelled. She tore off her wedding-ring, threw it at his feet, renounced
his name, and went off to Ballarat with her old nurse and the remnants
of her fortune.

Mr Villiers, however, was not displeased at this step; in fact, he was
rather glad to get rid of a wife who could no longer supply him with
money, and whose presence was a constant rebuke. He sold up the house
and furniture, and converted all available property into cash, which
cash he then converted into drink for himself and jewellery for his lady
friend. The end soon came to the fresh supply of money, and his lady
friend went off with his dearest companion, to whose purse she had taken
a sudden liking. Villiers, deserted by all his acquaintances, sank
lower and lower in the social scale, and the once brilliant butterfly
of fashion became a billiard marker, then a tout at races, and finally a
bar loafer with no visible means of support.

Meantime Mrs Villiers was prospering in Ballarat, and gaining the
respect and good opinion of everyone, while her husband was earning the
contempt of not only his former friends but even of the creatures with
whom he now associated. When Mrs Villiers went up to Ballarat after her
short but brilliant life in Melbourne she felt crushed. She had given
all the wealth of her girlish affection to her husband, and had endowed
him with all kinds of chivalrous attributes, only to find out, as many
a woman has done before and since, that her idol had feet of clay. The
sudden shock of the discovery of his baseness altered the whole of
her life, and from being a bright, trustful girl, she became a cold
suspicious woman who disbelieved in everyone and in everything.

But she was of too restless and ambitious a nature to be content with an
idle life, and although the money she still possessed was sufficient to
support her in comfort, yet she felt that she must do something, if
only to keep her thoughts from dwelling on those bitter years of
married life. The most obvious thing to do in Ballarat was to go in for
gold-mining, and chance having thrown in her way a mate of her father's,
she determined to devote herself to that, being influenced in her
decision by the old digger. This man, by name Archibald McIntosh, was
a shrewd, hard-headed Scotchman, who had been in Ballarat when the
diggings were in the height of their fame, and who knew all about the
lie of the country and where the richest leads had been in the old days.
He told Mrs Villiers that her father and himself had worked together on
a lead then known as the Devil's Lead, which was one of the richest
ever discovered in the district. It had been found by five men, who had
agreed with one another to keep silent as to the richness of the lead,
and were rapidly making their fortunes when the troubles of the Eureka
stockade intervened, and, in the encounter between the miners and the
military, three of the company working the lead were killed, and only
two men were left who knew the whereabouts of the claim and the value
of it. These were McIntosh and Curtis, who were the original holders.
Mr Curtis, went down to Melbourne, and, as previously related, died of
heart disease, so the only man left of the five who had worked the lead
was Archibald McIntosh. He had been too poor to work it himself, and,
having failed to induce any speculator to go in with him to acquire
the land, he had kept silent about it, only staying up at Ballarat and
guarding the claim lest someone else should chance on it. Fortunately
the place where it was situated had not been renowned for gold in the
early days, and it had passed into the hands of a man who used it as
pasture land, quite ignorant of the wealth which lay beneath. When Mrs
Villiers came up to Ballarat, this man wanted to sell the land, as he
was going to Europe; so, acting under the urgent advice of McIntosh, she
sold out of all the investments which she had and purchased the whole
tract of country where the old miner assured her solemnly the Devil's
Lead was to be found.

Then she built a house near the mine, and taking her old nurse, Selina
Sprotts, and Archibald McIntosh to live with her, sank a shaft in
the place indicated by the latter. She also engaged miners, and gave
McIntosh full control over the mine, while she herself kept the books,
paid the accounts, and proved herself to be a first-class woman of
business. She had now been working the mine for two years, but as yet
had not been fortunate enough to strike the lead. The gutter, however,
proved remunerative enough to keep the mine going, pay all the men,
and support Mrs Villiers herself, so she was quite content to wait till
fortune should smile on her, and the long-looked-for Devil's Lead turned
up. People who had heard of her taking the land were astonished at
first, and disposed to scoff, but they soon begun to admire the plucky
way in which she fought down her ill-luck for the first year of her
venture. All at once matters changed; she made a lucky speculation in
the share market, and the Pactolus claim began to pay. Mrs Villiers
became mixed up in mining matters, and bought and sold on 'Change with
such foresight and promptitude of action that she soon began to make a
lot of money. Stockbrokers are not, as a rule, romantic, but one of
the fraternity was so struck with her persistent good fortune that he
christened her Madame Midas, after that Greek King whose touch turned
everything into gold. This name tickled the fancy of others, and in a
short time she was called nothing but Madame Midas all over the country,
which title she accepted complacently enough as a forecast of her
success in finding the Devil's Lead, which idea had grown into a mania
with her as it already was with her faithful henchman, McIntosh.

When Mr Villiers therefore arrived in Ballarat, he found his wife
universally respected and widely known as Madame Midas, so he went to
see her, expecting to be kept in luxurious ease for the rest of his
life. He soon, however, found himself mistaken, for his wife told him
plainly she would have nothing to do with him, and that if he dared to
show his face at the Pactolus claim she would have him turned off by
her men. He threatened to bring the law into force to make her live with
him, but she laughed in his face, and said she would bring a divorce
suit against him if he did so; and as Mr Villiers' character could
hardly bear the light of day, he retreated, leaving Madame in full
possession of the field.

He stayed, however, in Ballarat, and took up stockbroking--living a
kind of hand-to-mouth existence, bragging of his former splendour, and
swearing at his wife for what he was pleased to call--her cruelty. Every
now and then he would pay a visit to the Pactolus, and try to see her,
but McIntosh was a vigilant guard, and the miserable creature was always
compelled to go back to his Bohemian life without accomplishing his
object of getting money from the wife he had deserted.

People talked, of course, but Madame did not mind. She had tried married
life, and had been disappointed; her old ideas of belief in human nature
had passed away; in short, the girl who had been the belle of Melbourne
as Miss Curtis and Mrs Villiers had disappeared, and the stern, clever,
cynical woman who managed the Pactolus claim was a new being called
'Madame Midas'.



CHAPTER II

SLIVERS


Everyone has heard of the oldest inhabitant--that wonderful piece of
antiquity, with white hair, garrulous tongue, and cast-iron memory,--who
was born with the present century--very often before it--and
remembers George III, the Battle of Waterloo, and the invention of the
steam-engine. But in Australia, the oldest inhabitant is localized, and
rechristened an early settler. He remembers Melbourne before Melbourne
was; he distinctly recollects sailing up the Yarra Yarra with Batman,
and talks wildly about the then crystalline purity of its waters--an
assertion which we of to-day feel is open to considerable doubt. His
wealth is unbounded, his memory marvellous, and his acquaintances of
a somewhat mixed character, comprising as they do a series of persons
ranging from a member of Parliament down to a larrikin.

Ballarat, no doubt, possesses many of these precious pieces of antiquity
hidden in obscure corners, but one especially was known, not only in
the Golden City, but throughout Victoria. His name was Slivers--plain
Slivers, as he said himself--and, from a physical point of view, he
certainly spoke the truth. What his Christian name was no one ever knew;
he called himself Slivers, and so did everyone else, without even an
Esquire or a Mister to it--neither a head nor a tail to add dignity to
the name.

Slivers was as well known in Sturt Street and at 'The Corner' as the
town clock, and his tongue very much resembled that timepiece, inasmuch
as it was always going. He was a very early settler; in fact, so
remarkably early that it was currently reported the first white men who
came to Ballarat found Slivers had already taken up his abode there, and
lived in friendly relations with the local blacks. He had achieved this
amicable relationship by the trifling loss of a leg, an arm, and an eye,
all of which portions of his body were taken off the right side, and
consequently gave him rather a lop-sided appearance. But what was left
of Slivers possessed an abundant vitality, and it seemed probable he
would go on living in the same damaged condition for the next twenty
years.

The Ballarat folk were fond of pointing him out as a specimen of the
healthy climate, but this was rather a flight of fancy, as Slivers was
one of those exasperating individuals who, if they lived in a swamp or
a desert, would still continue to feel their digestions good and their
lungs strong.

Slivers was reputed rich, and Arabian-Night-like stories were told of
his boundless wealth, but no one ever knew the exact amount of money he
had, and as Slivers never volunteered any information on the subject, no
one ever did know. He was a small, wizen-looking little man, who usually
wore a suit of clothes a size too large for him, wherein scandal-mongers
averred his body rattled like a dried pea in a pod. His hair was white,
and fringed the lower portion of his yellow little scalp in a most
deceptive fashion. With his hat on Slivers looked sixty; take it off and
his bald head immediately added ten years to his existence. His one eye
was bright and sharp, of a greyish colour, and the loss of the other was
replaced by a greasy black patch, which gave him a sinister appearance.
He was cleaned shaved, and had no teeth, but notwithstanding this want,
his lips gripped the stem of his long pipe in a wonderfully tenacious
and obstinate manner. He carried on the business of a mining agent, and
knowing all about the country and the intricacies of the mines, he was
one of the cleverest speculators in Ballarat.

The office of Slivers was in Sturt Street, in a dirty, tumble-down
cottage wedged between two handsome modern buildings. It was a remnant
of old Ballarat which had survived the rage for new houses and highly
ornamented terraces. Slivers had been offered money for that ricketty
little shanty, but he declined to sell it, averring that as a snail grew
to fit his house his house had grown to fit him.

So there it stood--a dingy shingle roof overgrown with moss--a quaint
little porch and two numerously paned windows on each side. On top of
the porch a sign-board--done by Slivers in the early days, and looking
like it--bore the legend 'Slivers, mining agent.' The door did not
shut--something was wrong with it, so it always stood ajar in a
hospitable sort of manner. Entering this, a stranger would find himself
in a dark low-roofed passage, with a door at the end leading to the
kitchen, another on the right leading to the bedroom, and a third on
the left leading to the office, where most of Slivers' indoor life was
spent. He used to stop here nearly all day doing business, with the
small table before him covered with scrip, and the mantelpiece behind
him covered with specimens of quartz, all labelled with the name of the
place whence they came. The inkstand was dirty, the ink thick and the
pens rusty; yet, in spite of all these disadvantages, Slivers managed
to do well and make money. He used to recommend men to different mines
round about, and whenever a manager wanted men, or new hands wanted
work, they took themselves off to Slivers, and were sure to be satisfied
there. Consequently, his office was nearly always full; either of people
on business or casual acquaintances dropping in to have a drink--Slivers
was generous in the whisky line--or to pump the old man about some
new mine, a thing which no one ever managed to do. When the office was
empty, Slivers would go on sorting the scrip on his table, drinking
his whisky, or talking to Billy. Now Billy was about as well known in
Ballarat as Slivers, and was equally as old and garrulous in his own
way. He was one of those large white yellow-crested cockatoos who, in
their captivity, pass their time like galley-slaves, chained by one leg.
Billy, however, never submitted to the indignity of a chain--he mostly
sat on Slivers' table or on his shoulder, scratching his poll with his
black claw, or chattering to Slivers in a communicative manner. People
said Billy was Slivers' evil spirit, and as a matter of fact, there was
something uncanny in the wisdom of the bird. He could converse fluently
on all occasions, and needed no drawing out, inasmuch as he was
always ready to exhibit his powers of conversation. He was not a pious
bird--belonging to Slivers, he could hardly be expected to be--and his
language was redolent of Billingsgate. So Billy being so clever was
quite a character in his way, and, seated on Slivers' shoulder with his
black bead of an eye watching his master writing with the rusty pen,
they looked a most unholy pair.

The warm sunlight poured through the dingy windows of the office, and
filled the dark room with a sort of sombre glory. The atmosphere of
Slivers' office was thick and dusty, and the sun made long beams of
light through the heavy air. Slivers had pushed all the scrip and loose
papers away, and was writing a letter in the little clearing caused by
their removal. On the old-fashioned inkstand was a paper full of grains
of gold, and on this the sunlight rested, making it glitter in
the obscurity of the room. Billy, seated on Slivers' shoulder, was
astonished at this, and, inspired by a spirit of adventure, he climbed
down and waddled clumsily across the table to the inkstand, where he
seized a small nugget in his beak and made off with it. Slivers looked
up from his writing suddenly: so, being detected, Billy stopped and
looked at him, still carrying the nugget in his beak.

'Drop it,' said Slivers severely, in his rasping little voice. Billy
pretended not to understand, and after eyeing Slivers for a moment or
two resumed his journey. Slivers stretched out his hand for the ruler,
whereupon Billy, becoming alive to his danger, dropped the nugget, and
flew down off the table with a discordant shriek.

'Devil! devil! devil!' screamed this amiable bird, flopping up and down
on the floor. 'You're a liar! You're a liar! Pickles.'

Having delivered himself of this bad language, Billy waddled to his
master's chair, and climbing up by the aid of his claws and beak, soon
established himself in his old position. Slivers, however, was not
attending to him, as he was leaning back in his chair drumming in an
absent sort of way with his lean fingers on the table. His cork arm hung
down limply, and his one eye was fixed on a letter lying in front of
him. This was a communication from the manager of the Pactolus Mine
requesting Slivers to get him more hands, and Slivers' thoughts had
wandered away from the letter to the person who wrote it, and from
thence to Madame Midas.

'She's a clever woman,' observed Slivers, at length, in a musing sort of
tone, 'and she's got a good thing on in that claim if she only strikes
the Lead.'

'Devil,' said Billy once more, in a harsh voice.

'Exactly,' answered Slivers, 'the Devil's Lead. Oh, Lord! what a fool I
was not to have collared that ground before she did; but that infernal
McIntosh never would tell me where the place was. Never mind, I'll be
even with him yet; curse him.'

His expression of face was not pleasant as he said this, and he grasped
the letter in front of him in a violent way, as if he were wishing his
long fingers were round the writer's throat. Tapping with his wooden leg
on the floor, he was about to recommence his musings, when he heard a
step in the passage, and the door of his office being pushed violently
open, a man entered without further ceremony, and flung himself down on
a chair near the window.

'Fire!' said Billy, on seeing this abrupt entry; 'how's your
mother!--Ballarat and Bendigo--Bendigo and Ballarat.'

The newcomer was a man short and powerfully built, dressed in a
shabby-genteel sort of way, with a massive head covered with black hair,
heavy side whiskers and moustache, and a clean shaved chin, which had
that blue appearance common to very dark men who shave. His mouth--that
is, as much as could be seen of it under the drooping moustache--was
weak and undecided, and his dark eyes so shifty and restless that they
seemed unable to meet a steady gaze, but always looked at some inanimate
object that would not stare them out of countenance.

'Well, Mr Randolph Villiers,' croaked Slivers, after contemplating his
visitor for a few moments, 'how's business?'

'Infernally bad,' retorted Mr Villiers, pulling out a cigar and lighting
it. 'I've lost twenty pounds on those Moscow shares.'

'More fool you,' replied Slivers, courteously, swinging round in his
chair so as to face Villiers. 'I could have told you the mine was no
good; but you will go on your own bad judgment.'

'It's like getting blood out of a stone to get tips from you,' growled
Villiers, with a sulky air. 'Come now, old boy,' in a cajoling manner,
'tell us something good--I'm nearly stone broke, and I must live.'

'I'm hanged if I see the necessity,' malignantly returned Slivers,
unconsciously quoting Voltaire; 'but if you do want to get into a good
thing--'

'Yes! yes!' said the other, eagerly bending forward.

'Get an interest in the Pactolus,' and the agreeable old gentleman
leaned back and laughed loudly in a raucous manner at his visitor's
discomfited look.

'You ass,' hissed Mr Villiers, between his closed teeth; 'you know as
well as I do that my infernal wife won't look at me.'

'Ho, ho!' laughed the cockatoo, raising his yellow crest in an angry
manner; 'devil take her--rather!'

'I wish he would!' muttered Villiers, fervently; then with an uneasy
glance at Billy, who sat on the old man's shoulder complacently ruffling
his feathers, he went on: 'I wish you'd screw that bird's neck, Slivers;
he's too clever by half.'

Slivers paid no attention to this, but, taking Billy off his shoulder,
placed him on the floor, then turned to his visitor and looked at him
fixedly with his bright eye in such a penetrating manner that Villiers
felt it go through him like a gimlet.

'I hate your wife,' said Slivers, after a pause.

'Why the deuce should you?' retorted Villiers, sulkily. 'You ain't
married to her.'

'I wish I was,' replied Slivers with a chuckle. 'A fine woman, my good
sir! Why, if I was married to her I wouldn't sneak away whenever I saw
her. I'd go up to the Pactolus claim and there I'd stay.'

'It's easy enough talking,' retorted Villiers crossly, 'but you don't
know what a fiend she is! Why do you hate her?'

'Because I do,' retorted Slivers. 'I hate her; I hate McIntosh; the
whole biling of them; they've got the Pactolus claim, and if they find
the Devil's Lead they'll be millionaires.'

'Well,' said the other, quite unmoved, 'all Ballarat knows that much.'

'But I might have had it!' shrieked Slivers, getting up in an excited
manner, and stumping up and down the office. 'I knew Curtis, McIntosh
and the rest were making their pile, but I couldn't find out where; and
now they're all dead but McIntosh, and the prize has slipped through my
fingers, devil take them!'

'Devil take them,' echoed the cockatoo, who had climbed up again on the
table, and was looking complacently at his master.

'Why don't you ruin your wife, you fool?' said Slivers, turning
vindictively on Villiers. 'You ain't going to let her have all the money
while you are starving, are you?'

'How the deuce am I to do that?' asked Villiers, sulkily, relighting his
cigar.

'Get the whip hand of her,' snarled Slivers, viciously; 'find out if
she's in love, and threaten to divorce her if she doesn't go halves.'

'There's no chance of her having any lovers,' retorted Villiers; 'she's
a piece of ice.'

'Ice melts,' replied Slivers, quickly. 'Wait till "Mr Right" comes
along, and then she'll begin to regret being married to you, and then--'

'Well?'

'You'll have the game in your own hands,' hissed the wicked old man,
rubbing his hands. 'Oh!' he cried, spinning round on his wooden leg,
'it's a lovely idea. Wait till we meet "Mr Right", just wait,' and he
dropped into his chair quite overcome by the state of excitement he had
worked himself into.

'If you've quite done with those gymnastics, my friend,' said a soft
voice near the door, 'perhaps I may enter.'

Both the inmates of the office looked up at this, and saw that two men
were standing at the half-open door--one an extremely handsome young
man of about thirty, dressed in a neat suit of blue serge, and wearing a
large white wide-awake hat, with a bird's-eye handkerchief twisted round
it. His companion was short and heavily built, dressed somewhat the
same, but with his black hat pulled down over his eyes.

'Come in,' growled Slivers, angrily, when he saw his visitors. 'What the
devil do you want?'

'Work,' said the young man, advancing to the table. 'We are new arrivals
in the country, and were told to come to you to get work.'

'I don't keep a factory,' snarled Slivers, leaning forward.

'I don't think I would come to you if you did,' retorted the stranger,
coolly. 'You would not be a pleasant master either to look at or to
speak to.'

Villiers laughed at this, and Slivers stared dumbfounded at being spoken
to in such a manner.

'Devil,' broke in Billy, rapidly. 'You're a liar--devil.'

'Those, I presume, are your master's sentiments towards me,' said the
young man, bowing gravely to the bird. 'But as soon as he recovers the
use of his tongue, I trust he will tell us if we can get work or not.'

Slivers was just going to snap out a refusal, when he caught sight
of McIntosh's letter on the table, and this recalled to his mind the
conversation he had with Mr Villiers. Here was a young man handsome
enough to make any woman fall in love with him, and who, moreover, had a
clever tongue in his head. All Slivers' animosity revived against Madame
Midas as he thought of the Devil's Lead, and he determined to use this
young man as a tool to ruin her in the eyes of the world. With these
thoughts in his mind, he drew a sheet of paper towards him, and dipping
the rusty pen in the thick ink, prepared to question his visitors as
to what they could do, with a view to sending them out to the Pactolus
claim.

'Names?' he asked, grasping his pen firmly in his left hand.

'Mine,' said the stranger, bowing, 'is Gaston Vandeloup, my friend's
Pierre Lemaire--both French.'

Slivers scrawled this down in the series of black scratches, which did
duty with him for writing.

'Where do you come from?' was his next question.

'The story,' said M. Vandeloup, with suavity, 'is too long to repeat at
present; but we came to-day from Melbourne.'

'What kind of work can you do?' asked Slivers, sharply.

'Anything that turns up,' retorted the Frenchman.

'I was addressing your companion, sir; not you,' snarled Slivers,
turning viciously on him.

'I have to answer for both,' replied the young man, coolly, slipping
one hand into his pocket and leaning up against the door in a negligent
attitude, 'my friend is dumb.'

'Poor devil!' said Slivers, harshly.

'But,' went on Vandeloup, sweetly, 'his legs, arms, and eyes are all
there.'

Slivers glared at this fresh piece of impertinence, but said nothing. He
wrote a letter to McIntosh, recommending him to take on the two men, and
handed it to Vandeloup, who received it with a bow.

'The price of your services, Monsieur?' he asked.

'Five bob,' growled Slivers, holding out his one hand.

Vandeloup pulled out two half-crowns and put them in the thin, claw-like
fingers, which instantly closed on them.

'It's a mining place you're going to,' said Slivers, pocketing the
money; 'the Pactolus claim. There's a pretty woman there. Have a drink?'

Vandeloup declined, but his companion, with a grunt, pushed past him,
and filling a tumbler with the whisky, drank it off. Slivers looked
ruefully at the bottle, and then hastily put it away, in case Vandeloup
should change his mind and have some.

Vandeloup put on his hat and went to the door, out of which Pierre had
already preceded him.

'I trust, gentlemen,' he said, with a graceful bow, 'we shall meet
again, and can then discuss the beauty of this lady to whom Mr Slivers
alludes. I have no doubt he is a judge of beauty in others, though he is
so incomplete himself.'

He went out of the door, and then Slivers sprang up and rushed to
Villiers.

'Do you know who that is?' he asked, in an excited manner, pulling his
companion to the window.

Villiers looked through the dusty panes, and saw the young Frenchman
walking away, as handsome and gallant a man as he had ever seen,
followed by the slouching figure of his friend.

'Vandeloup,' he said, turning to Slivers, who was trembling with
excitement.

'No, you fool,' retorted the other, triumphantly. That is "Mr Right".'



CHAPTER III

MADAME MIDAS AT HOME


Madame Midas was standing on the verandah of her cottage, staring far
away into the distance, where she could see the tall chimney and huge
mound of white earth which marked the whereabouts of the Pactolus claim.
She was a tall voluptuous-looking woman of what is called a Junoesque
type--decidedly plump, with firm white hands and well-formed feet. Her
face was of a whitish tint, more like marble than flesh, and appeared
as if modelled from the antique--with the straight Greek nose, high and
smooth forehead, and full red mouth, with firmly-closed lips. She had
dark and piercing eyes, with heavy arched eyebrows above them, and her
hair, of a bluish-black hue, was drawn smoothly over the forehead, and
coiled in thick wreaths at the top of her small, finely-formed head.
Altogether a striking-looking woman, but with an absence of animation
about her face, which had a calm, serene expression, effectually hiding
any thoughts that might be passing in her mind, and which resembled
nothing so much in its inscrutable look as the motionless calm which the
old Egyptians gave to their sphinxes. She was dressed for coolness in a
loose white dress, tied round her waist with a crimson scarf of
Indian silk; and her beautifully modelled arms, bare to the elbow,
and unadorned by any trinkets, were folded idly in front of her as she
looked out at the landscape, which was mellowed and full of warmth under
the bright yellow glare of the setting sun.

The cottage--for it was nothing else--stood on a slight rise immediately
in front of a dark wood of tall gum-trees, and there was a long row of
them on the right, forming a shelter against the winds, as if the wood
had thrown a protecting arm around the cottage, and wanted to draw it
closer to its warm bosom. The country was of an undulating character,
divided into fields by long rows of gorse hedges, all golden with
blossoms, which gave out a faint, peach-like odour. Some of these
meadows were yellow with corn--some a dull red with sorrel, others left
in their natural condition of bright green grass--while here and there
stood up, white and ghost-like, the stumps of old trees, the last
remnants of the forests, which were slowly retreating before the axe
of the settler. These fields, which had rather a harlequin aspect with
their varied colours, all melted together in the far distance into an
indescribable neutral tint, and ended in the dark haze of the bush,
which grew over all the undulating hills. On the horizon, however,
at intervals, a keen eye could see some tall tree standing boldly up,
outlined clearly against the pale yellow of the sky. There was a white
dusty road or rather a track between two rough fences, with a wide space
of green grass on each side, and here and there could be seen the cattle
wandering idly homeward, lingering every now and then to pull at a
particularly tempting tuft of bush grass growing in the moist
ditches which ran along each side of the highway. Scattered over this
pastoral-looking country were huge mounds of white earth, looking like
heaps of carded wool, and at the end of each of these invariably stood
a tall, ugly skeleton of wood. These marked the positions of the
mines--the towers contained the winding gear, while the white earth was
the clay called mulloch, brought from several hundred feet below the
surface. Near these mounds were rough-looking sheds with tall red
chimneys, which made a pleasant spot of colour against the white of
the clay. On one of these mounds, rather isolated from the others, and
standing by itself in the midst of a wide green paddock, Mrs Villiers'
eyes were fixed, and she soon saw the dark figure of a man coming slowly
down the white mound, along the green field and advancing slowly up the
hill. When she saw him coming, without turning her head or raising her
voice, she called out to someone inside,

'Archie is coming, Selina--you had better hurry up the tea, for he will
be hungry after such a long day.'

The person inside made no answer save by an extra clatter of some
domestic utensils, and Madame apparently did not expect a reply, for
without saying anything else she walked slowly down the garden path, and
leaned lightly over the gate, waiting for the newcomer, who was indeed
none other than Archibald McIntosh, the manager of the Pactolus.

He was a man of about medium height, rather thin than otherwise, with a
long, narrow-looking head and boldly cut features--clean shaved save for
a frill of white hair which grew on his throat up the sides of his head
to his ears, and which gave him rather a peculiar appearance, as if he
had his jaw bandaged up. His eyes were grey and shrewd-looking, his lips
were firmly compressed--in fact, the whole appearance of his face was
obstinate--the face of a man who would stick to his opinions whatever
anyone else might say to the contrary. He was in a rough miner's dress,
all splashed with clay, and as he came up to the gate Madame could see
he was holding something in his hand.

'D'ye no ken what yon may be?' he said, a smile relaxing his grim
features as he held up a rather large nugget; ''tis the third yin this
week!'

Madame Midas took the nugget from him and balanced it carefully in her
hand, with a thoughtful look in her face, as if she was making a mental
calculation.

'About twenty to twenty-five ounces, I should say,' she observed in
her soft low voice; 'the last we had was fifteen, and the one before
twenty--looks promising for the gutter, doesn't it?'

'Well, I'll no say but what it micht mean a deal mair,' replied
McIntosh, with characteristic Scotch caution, as he followed Madame into
the house; 'it's no a verra bad sign, onyhow; I winna say but what we
micht be near the Devil's Lead.'

'And if we are?' said Madame, turning with a smile.

'Weel, mem, ye'll have mair siller nor ye'll ken what to dae wi', an'
'tis to be hoped ye'll no be making a fool of yersel.'

Madame laughed--she was used to McIntosh's plain speaking, and it in no
wise offended her. In fact, she preferred it very much more than being
flattered, as people's blame is always genuine, their praise rarely so.
At all events she was not displeased, and looked after him with a smile
in her dark eyes as he disappeared into the back kitchen to make himself
decent for tea. Madame herself sat down in an arm-chair in the bow
window, and watched Selina preparing the meal.

Selina Jane Sprotts, who now acted as servant to Mrs Villiers, was
rather an oddity in her way. She had been Madame's nurse, and had
followed her up to Ballarat, with the determination of never leaving
her. Selina was a spinster, as her hand had never been sought
in marriage, and her personal appearance was certainly not very
fascinating. Tall and gaunt, she was like a problem from Euclid, all
angles, and the small quantity of grey hair she possessed was screwed
into a hard lump at the back of her head. Her face was reddish in
colour, and her mouth prim and pursed up, as if she was afraid of saying
too much, which she need not have been, as she rarely spoke, and was
as economical of her words as she was of everything else. She was much
given to quoting proverbs, and hurled these prepared little pieces of
wisdom on every side like pellets out of a pop-gun. Conversation which
consists mainly of proverbs is rarely exhilarating; consequently Miss
Sprotts was not troubled to talk much, either by Madame or McIntosh.

Miss Sprotts moved noiselessly about the small room, in a wonderfully
dextrous manner considering her height, and, after laying the table,
placed the teapot on the hob to 'draw', thereby disturbing a cat and
a dog who were lying in front of the fire--for there was a fire in the
room in spite of the heat of the day, Selina choosing to consider that
the house was damp. She told Madame she knew it was damp because her
bones ached, and as she was mostly bones she certainly had a good
opportunity of judging.

Annoyed at being disturbed by Miss Sprotts, the dog resigned his
comfortable place with a plaintive growl, but the cat, of a more
irritable temperament, set up and made a sudden scratch at her hand,
drawing blood therefrom.

'Animals,' observed Selina, grimly, 'should keep their place;' and she
promptly gave the cat a slap on the side of the head, which sent him
over to Madame's feet, with an angry spit. Madame picked him up and
soothed his ruffled feelings so successfully, that he curled himself up
on her lap and went to sleep.

By-and-bye Archie, who had been making a great splashing in the back
premises, came in looking clean and fresh, with a more obstinate look
about his face than ever. Madame went to the tea-table and sat down,
for she always had her meals with them, a fact of which they were very
proud, and they always treated her with intense respect, though every
now and then they were inclined to domineer. Archie, having seen that
the food on the table was worth thanking God for, asked a blessing in
a peremptory sort of manner, as if he thought Heaven required a deal of
pressing to make it attentive. Then they commenced to eat in silence,
for none of the party were very much given to speech, and no sound was
heard save the rattling of the cups and saucers and the steady ticking
of the clock. The window was open, and a faint breeze came in--cool and
fragrant with the scent of the forest, and perfumed with the peach-like
odour of the gorse blossoms. There was a subdued twilight through all
the room, for the night was coming on, and the gleam of the flickering
flames of the fire danced gaily against the roof and exaggerated all
objects to an immense size. At last Archie pushed back his chair to show
that he had finished, and prepared to talk.

'I dinna see ony new bodies coming,' he said, looking at his mistress.
'They, feckless things, that left were better than none, though they
should hae been skelped for their idleness.'

'You have written to Slivers?' said Madame, raising her eyes.

'That wudden-legged body,' retorted McIntosh. 'Deed and I have, but the
auld tyke hasna done onything to getting me what I want. Weel, weel,' in
a resigned sort of a manner, 'we micht be waur off than we are, an' wha
kens but what Providence will send us men by-and-bye?'

Selina looked up at this, saw her opportunity, and let slip an
appropriate proverb.

'If we go by by-and-bye lane,' she said sharply, 'we come to the gate of
never.'

This being undeniable, no one gave her the pleasure of contradicting
her, for Archie knew it was impossible to argue with Selina, so handy
was she with her proverbial wisdom--a kind of domestic Tupper, whose
philosophy was of the most irritating and unanswerable kind. He did
the wisest thing he could under the circumstances, and started a new
subject.

'I say yon the day.'

'Yon' in this case meant Mr Villiers, whose name was tabooed in the
house, and was always spoken of in a half-hinting kind of way. As both
her servants knew all about her unhappy life, Madame did not scruple to
talk to them.

'How was he looking?' she asked, smoothing the crumbs off her dress.

'Brawly,' replied Archie, rising; 'he lost money on that Moscow mine,
but he made a fine haul owre the Queen o' Hearts claim.'

'The wicked,' observed Selina, 'flourish like a green bay tree.'

'Ou, ay,' retorted McIntosh, drily; 'we ken a' aboot that, Selina--auld
Hornie looks after his ain.'

'I think he leads a very hand-to-mouth existence,' said Madame, calmly;
'however rich he may become, he will always be poor, because he never
was a provident man.'

'He's comin' tae see ye, mem,' said Archie, grimly, lighting his pipe.

Madame rose to her feet and walked to the window.

'He's done that before,' she said, complacently; 'the result was not
satisfactory.'

'Continual dropping wears away a stone,' said Selina, who was now
clearing away.

'But not iron,' replied Madame, placidly; 'I don't think his persistence
will gain anything.'

Archie smiled grimly, and then went outside to smoke his pipe, while
Madame sat down by the open window and looked out at the fast-fading
landscape.

Her thoughts were not pleasant. She had hoped to cut herself off from
all the bitterness and sorrow of her past life, but this husband of
hers, like an unquiet spirit, came to trouble her and remind her of
a time she would willingly have forgotten. She looked calm and quiet
enough sitting there with her placid face and smooth brow; but this
woman was like a slumbering volcano, and her passions were all the more
dangerous from being kept in check.

A bat flew high up in the air across the clear glow of the sky,
disappearing into the adjacent bush, and Madame, stretching out her
hand, idly plucked a fresh, dewy rose off the tree which grew round the
window.

'If I could only get rid of him,' she thought, toying with the flower;
'but it is impossible. I can't do that without money, and money I never
will have till I find that lead. I must bribe him, I suppose. Oh, why
can't he leave me alone now? Surely he has ruined my life sufficiently
in the past to let me have a few years, if not of pleasure, at least of
forgetfulness.' And with a petulant gesture she hurled the rose out
of the window, where it struck Archie a soft and fragrant blow on the
cheek.

'Yes,' said Madame to herself, as she pulled down the window, 'I must
get rid of him, and if bribery won't do--there are other means.'



CHAPTER IV

THE GOOD SAMARITAN


Is there anyone nowadays who reads Cowper--that charming, domestic poet
who wrote 'The Task', and invested even furniture with the glamour of
poesy? Alas! to many people Cowper is merely a name, or is known only as
the author of the delightfully quaint ballad of John Gilpin. Yet he
was undoubtedly the Poet Laureate of domesticity, and every householder
should possess a bust or picture of him--placed, not amid the frigid
splendours of the drawing room, but occupying the place of honour in
his own particular den, where everything is old-fashioned, cheery, and
sanctified by long usage. No one wrote so pleasantly about the pleasures
of a comfortable room as Cowper. And was he not right to do so? After
all, every hearth is the altar of the family, whereon the sacred fire
should be kept constantly burning, waxing and waning with the seasons,
but never be permitted to die out altogether. Miss Sprotts, as before
mentioned, was much in favour of a constant fire, because of the alleged
dampness of the house, and Madame Midas did not by any means object, as
she was a perfect salamander for heat. Hence, when the outward door
was closed, the faded red curtains of the window drawn, and the newly
replenished fire blazed brightly in the wide fireplace, the room was
one which even Cowper--sybarite in home comforts as he was--would have
contemplated with delight.

Madame Midas was seated now at the small table in the centre of the
room, poring over a bewildering array of figures, and the soft glow of
the lamp touched her smooth hair and white dress with a subdued light.

Archie sat by the fire, half asleep, and there was a dead silence in the
room, only broken by the rapid scratching of Madame's pen or the click
of Selina's needles. At last Mrs Villiers, with a sigh of relief, laid
down her pen, put all her papers together, and tied them neatly with a
bit of string.

'I'm afraid I'll have to get a clerk, Archie,' she said, as she put the
papers away, 'the office work is getting too much for me.'

''Deed, mem, and 'tis that same I was thinkin' o',' returned Mr
McIntosh, sitting bolt upright in his chair, lest the imputation of
having been asleep should be brought against him. 'It's ill wark seein'
ye spoilin' your bonny eyes owre sic a muckle lot o' figures as ye hae
there.'

'Someone must do it,' said Madame, resuming her seat at the table.

'Then why not get a body that can dae it?' retorted Archie; 'not but
what ye canna figure yersel', mem, but really ye need a rest, and if I
hear of onyone in toun wha we can trust I'll bring him here next week.'

'I don't see why you shouldn't,' said Madame, musingly; 'the mine is
fairly under way now, and if things go on as they are doing, I must have
someone to assist me.'

At this moment a knock came to the front door, which caused Selina to
drop her work with a sudden start, and rise to her feet.

'Not you, Selina,' said Madame, in a quiet voice; 'let Archie go; it may
be some tramp.'

''Deed no, mem,' replied Archie, obstinately, as he arose from his seat;
''tis verra likely a man fra the warks saying he wants to go. There's
mair talk nor sense aboot them, I'm thinkin'--the yattering parrots.'

Selina resumed her knitting in a most phlegmatic manner, but Madame
listened intently, for she was always haunted by a secret dread of
her husband breaking in on her, and it was partly on this account that
McIntosh stayed in the house. She heard a murmur of voices, and then
Archie returned with two men, who entered the room and stood before
Madame in the light of the lamp.

''Tis two men fra that wudden-legged gowk o' a Slivers,' said Archie,
respectfully. 'Ain o' them has a wee bit letter for ye'--turning to
receive same from the foremost man.

The man, however, did not take notice of Archie's gesture, but walking
forward to Madame, laid the letter down before her. As he did so, she
caught sight of the delicacy of his hands, and looked up suddenly with a
piercing gaze. He bore the scrutiny coolly, and took a chair in silence,
his companion doing the same, while Madame opened the letter and read
Slivers' bad writing with a dexterity only acquired by long practice.
Having finished her perusal, she looked up slowly.

'A broken-down gentleman,' she said to herself, as she saw the easy
bearing and handsome face of the young man; then looking at his
companion, she saw by his lumpish aspect and coarse hands, that he
occupied a much lower rank of life than his friend.

Monsieur Vandeloup--for it was he--caught her eye as she was
scrutinising them, and his face broke into a smile--a most charming
smile, as Madame observed mentally, though she allowed nothing of her
thoughts to appear on her face.

'You want work,' she said, slowly folding up the letter, and placing it
in her pocket; 'do you understand anything about gold-mining?'

'Unfortunately, no, Madame,' said Vandeloup, coolly; 'but we are willing
to learn.'

Archie grunted in a dissatisfied manner, for he was by no means in
favour of teaching people their business, and, besides, he thought
Vandeloup too much of a gentleman to do good work.

'You look hardly strong enough for such hard labour,' said Mrs Villiers,
doubtfully eyeing the slender figure of the young man. 'Your companion,
I think, will do, but you--'

'I, Madame, am like the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin,'
replied Vandeloup, gaily; 'but, unfortunately, I am now compelled by
necessity to work, and though I should prefer to earn my bread in an
easier manner, beggars,'--with a characteristic shrug, which did not
escape Madame's eye--cannot be choosers.'

'You are French?' she asked quickly, in that language.

'Yes, Madame,' he replied in the same tongue, 'both my friend and myself
are from Paris, but we have not been long out here.'

'Humph,' Madame leaned her head on her hand and thought, while Vandeloup
looked at her keenly, and remembered what Slivers had said.

'She is, indeed, a handsome woman,' he observed, mentally; 'my lines
will fall in pleasant places, if I remain here.'

Mrs Villiers rather liked the looks of this young man; there was a
certain fascination about him which few women could resist, and Madame,
although steeled to a considerable extent by experience, was yet a
woman. His companion, however, she did not care about--he had a sullen
and lowering countenance, and looked rather dangerous.

'What is your name?' she asked the young man.

'Gaston Vandeloup.'

'You are a gentleman?'

He bowed, but said nothing.

'And you?' asked Madame, sharply turning to the other.

He looked up and touched his mouth.

'Pardon him not answering, Madame,' interposed Vandeloup, 'he has the
misfortune to be dumb.'

'Dumb?' echoed Madame, with a glance of commiseration, while Archie
looked startled, and Selina mentally observed that silence was golden.

'Yes, he has been so from his birth,--at least, so he gives me
to understand,' said Gaston, with a shrug of his shoulders, which
insinuated a doubt on the subject; 'but it's more likely the result
of an accident, for he can hear though he cannot speak. However, he is
strong and willing to work; and I also, if you will kindly give me an
opportunity,' added he, with a winning smile.

'You have not many qualifications,' said Madame, shortly, angry with
herself for so taking to this young man's suave manner.

'Probably not,' retorted Vandeloup, with a cynical smile. 'I fancy it
will be more a case of charity than anything else, as we are starving.'

Madame started, while Archie murmured 'Puir deils.'

'Surely not as bad as that?' observed Mrs Villiers, in a softer tone.

'Why not?' retorted the Frenchman, carelessly. 'Manna does not fall from
heaven as in the days of Moses. We are strangers in a strange land, and
it is hard to obtain employment. My companion Pierre can work in your
mine, and if you will take me on I can keep your books'--with a sudden
glance at a file of papers on the table.

'Thank you, I keep my own books,' replied Madame, shortly. 'What do you
say to engaging them, Archie?'

'We ma gie them a try,' said McIntosh, cautiously. 'Ye do need a figger
man, as I tauld ye, and the dour deil can wark i' the claim.'

Madame drew a long breath, and then made up her mind.

'Very well,' she said, sharply; 'you are engaged, M. Vandeloup, as my
clerk, and your companion can work in the mine. As to wages and all
that, we will settle to-morrow, but I think you will find everything
satisfactory.'

'I am sure of that, Madame,' returned Vandeloup, with a bow.

'And now,' said Madame Midas, graciously, relaxing somewhat now that
business was over, 'you had better have some supper.'

Pierre's face lighted up when he heard this invitation, and Vandeloup
bowed politely.

'You are very kind,' he said, looking at Mrs Villiers in a friendly
manner; 'supper is rather a novelty to both of us.'

Selina meanwhile had gone out, and returned with some cold beef and
pickles, a large loaf and a jug of beer. These she placed on the table,
and then retired to her seat again, inwardly rebellious at having two
tramps at the table, but outwardly calm.

Pierre fell upon the victuals before him with the voracity of a starving
animal, and ate and drank in such a savage manner that Madame was
conscious of a kind of curious repugnance, and even Archie was startled
out of his Scotch phlegm.

'I wadna care aboot keepin' yon long,' he muttered to himself; 'he's
mair like a cannibal nor a ceevalized body.'

Vandeloup, however, ate very little and soon finished; then filling a
glass with beer, he held it to his lips and bowed again to Madame Midas.

'To your health, Madame,' he said, drinking.

Mrs Villiers bowed courteously. This young man pleased her. She was
essentially a woman with social instincts, and the appearance of this
young and polished stranger in the wilds of the Pactolus claim promised
her a little excitement. It was true that every now and then, when she
caught a glimpse from his scintillating eyes, she was conscious of a
rather unpleasant sensation, but this she put down to fancy, as the
young man's manners were really charming.

When the supper was ended, Pierre pushed back his chair into the shadow
and once more relapsed into his former gloom, but Vandeloup stood up and
looked towards Madame in a hesitating manner.

'I'm afraid, Madame, we disturb you,' he murmured vaguely, though in
his heart he wished to stay in this pleasant room and talk to such a
handsome woman; 'we had best be going.'

'Not at all,' answered Madame, graciously, 'sit down; you and your
friend can sleep in the men's quarters to-night, and to-morrow we will
see if we can't provide you with a better resting-place.'

Vandeloup murmured something indistinctly, and then resumed his seat.

'Meanwhile,' said Mrs Villiers, leaning back in her chair, and regarding
him fixedly, 'tell me all about yourselves.'

'Alas, Madame,' answered Vandeloup, with a charming smile and
deprecating shrug of his shoulders, 'there is not much to tell. I was
brought up in Paris, and, getting tired of city life, I came out to
India to see a little of the world; then I went over to Borneo, and was
coming down to Australia, when our vessel was wrecked and all on board
were drowned but myself and this fellow,' pointing to Pierre, 'who was
one of the sailors. We managed to get a boat, and after tossing about
for nearly a week we were cast up on the coast of Queensland, and from
thence came to Melbourne. I could not get work there, neither could
my friend, and as we heard of Ballarat we came up here to try to get
employment, and our lines, Madame,'--with another bow--'have fallen in a
pleasant place.'

'What a dreadful chapter of accidents,' said Madame, coolly looking at
him to see if he was speaking the truth, for experience of her husband
had inspired her with an instinctive distrust of men. Vandeloup,
however, bore her scrutiny without moving a muscle of his face, so
Madame at last withdrew her eyes, quite satisfied that his story was
true.

'Is there no one in Paris to whom you can write?' she asked, after a
pause.

'Luckily, there is,' returned Gaston, 'and I have already sent a letter,
asking for a remittance, but it takes time to get an answer, and as I
have lost all my books, papers, and money, I must just wait for a few
months, and, as I have to live in the meantime, I am glad to obtain
work.'

'Still, your consul--' began Mrs Villiers.

'Alas, Madame, what can I say--how can I prove to him that I am what
I assert to be? My companion is dumb and cannot speak for me, and,
unluckily, he can neither read nor write. I have no papers to prove
myself, so my consul may think me--what you call--a scamp. No; I will
wait till I receive news from home, and get to my own position again;
besides,' with a shrug, 'after all, it is experience.'

'Experience,' said Madame, quietly, 'is a good schoolmaster, but the
fees are somewhat high.'

'Ah!' said Vandeloup, with a pleased look, 'you know Heine, I perceive,
Madame. I did not know he was read out here.'

'We are not absolute barbarians, M. Vandeloup,' said Madame, with a
smile, as she arose and held out her hand to the young man; 'and now
good night, for I am feeling tired, and I will see you to-morrow. Mr
McIntosh will show you where you are to sleep.'

Vandeloup took the hand she held out to him and pressed it to his lips
with a sudden gesture. 'Madame,' he said, passionately, 'you are an
angel, for to-day you have saved the lives of two men.'

Madame snatched her hand away quickly, and a flush of annoyance spread
over her face as she saw how Selina and Archie stared. Vandeloup,
however, did not wait for her answer, but went out, followed by Pierre.
Archie put on his hat and walked out after them, while Madame Midas
stood looking at Selina with a thoughtful expression of countenance.

'I don't know if I've done a right thing, Selina,' she said, at length;
'but as they were starving I could hardly turn them away.'

'Cast your bread on the waters and it shall come back after many
days--buttered,' said Selina, giving her own version of the text.

Madame laughed.

'M. Vandeloup talks well,' she observed.

'So did HE,' replied Selina, with a sniff, referring to Mr Villiers;
'once bitten, twice shy.'

'Quite right, Selina,' replied Mrs Villiers, coolly; 'but you are going
too fast. I'm not going to fall in love with my servant.'

'You're a woman,' retorted Selina, undauntedly, for she had not much
belief in her own sex.

'Yes, who has been tricked and betrayed by a man,' said Madame,
fiercely; 'and do you think because I succour a starving human being
I am attracted by his handsome face? You ought to know me better than
that, Selina. I have always been true to myself,' and without another
word she left the room.

Selina stood still for a moment, then deliberately put away her work,
slapped the cat in order to relieve her feelings, and poked the fire
vigorously.

'I don't like him,' she said, emphasizing every word with a poke. 'He's
too smooth and handsome, his eyes ain't true, and his tongue's too
smart. I hate him.'

Having delivered herself of this opinion, she went to boil some water
for Mr McIntosh, who always had some whisky hot before going to bed.

Selina was right in her estimate of Vandeloup, and, logically argued,
the case stood thus:--

Some animals of a fine organization have an instinct which warns them to
avoid approaching danger.

Woman is one of these finely-organized animals. ERGO--

Let no woman go contrary to her instinct.



CHAPTER V

MAMMON'S TREASURE HOUSE


At the foot of the huge mound of white mulloch which marked the site
of the Pactolus Mine was a long zinc-roofed building, which was divided
into two compartments. In one of these the miners left their clothes,
and put on rough canvas suits before going down, and here also they were
searched on coming up in order to see if they had carried away any gold.
From this room a long, narrow passage led to the top of the shaft, so
that any miner having gold concealed upon him could not throw it away
and pick it up afterwards, but had to go right into the searching room
from the cage, and could not possibly hide a particle without being
found out by the searchers. The other room was the sleeping apartment of
such miners as stayed on the premises, for the majority of the men went
home to their families when their work was done.

There were three shifts of men on the Pactolus during the twenty-four
hours, and each shift worked eight hours at a time--the first going
on at midnight and knocking off at eight in the morning, the second
commencing at eight and ending at four in the afternoon, and the third
starting at four and lasting until midnight again, when the first shift
of men began anew.

Consequently, when M. Vandeloup awoke next morning at six o'clock the
first shift were not yet up, and some of the miners who had to go on
at eight were sleeping heavily in their beds. The sleeping places were
berths, ranging along two sides of the room, and divided into upper and
lower compartments like those on shipboard.

Gaston having roused himself naturally wanted to see where he was, so
rubbing his eyes and yawning he leaned on his elbow and took a leisurely
survey of his position.

He saw a rather large room lighted at regular intervals by three square
windows, and as these were uncurtained, the cold, searching light of
daybreak was slowly stealing through them into the apartment, and all
the dusky objects therein were gradually revealing themselves in the
still light. He could hear the heavy, monotonous breathing of the men,
and the restless turning and tossing of those who could not sleep.

Gaston yawned once or twice, then feeling disinclined for any more
sleep, he softly put on his clothes, so as not to awake Pierre, who
slept in the berth below, and descending from his sleeping-place groped
his way to the door and went out into the cool fragrant morning.

There was a chill wind blowing from the bush, bringing with it a faint
aromatic odour, and on glancing downwards he saw that the grass was wet
with dew. The dawn was burning redly in the east, and the vivid crimson
of the sky put him in mind of that sunset under which he had landed with
his companion on the Queensland coast. Suddenly a broad shaft of yellow
light broke into the pale pink of the sky, and with a burst of splendour
the sun rose slowly into sight from behind the dark bush, and all the
delicate workings of the dawn disappeared in the flood of golden light
which poured over the landscape.

Vandeloup looked idly at all this beauty with an unobservant eye, being
too much occupied with his thoughts to take notice of anything; and it
was only when two magpies near him broke into a joyous duet, in which
each strove to emulate the other's mellow notes, that he awoke from his
brown study, and began to walk back again to the mine.

'I must let nothing stand in my way to acquire money,' he said,
musingly; 'with it one can rule the world; without it--but how trite
and bald these well-worn maxims seem! Why do I repeat them, parrot-like,
when I see what I have to do so clearly before me? That woman, for
instance--I must begin by making her my friend. Bah! she is that
already; I saw it in her eyes, which she can't control as she does
her face. Yes, I must make her my friend; my very dear friend--and
then--well, to my mind, the world-pivot is a woman. I will spare no one
in order to attain my ends--I will make myself my own God, and consider
no one but myself, and those who stand in my path must get out of it or
run the chance of being crushed. This,' with a cynical smile, 'is what
some would call the devil's philosophy; at all events, it is good enough
for me.'

He was near the mine by this time, and hearing someone calling to him he
looked up, and saw McIntosh walking towards him. There was a stir in
the men's quarters now, and he could see the door was open and several
figures were moving briskly about, while a number of others were
crossing the fields. The regular beat of the machinery still continued,
and the smoke was pouring out thick and black from the tall red chimney,
while the wheels were spinning round in the poppet-heads as the mine
slowly disgorged the men who had been working all night.

McIntosh came slowly along with his hands in his pockets and a puzzled
look on his severe face. He could not make up his mind whether to like
or dislike this young man, but Madame Midas had seemed so impressed
that he had half made up his mind to dislike him out of a spirit of
contradiction.

'Weemen are sae easy pleased, puir feckless bodies,' he said to himself,
'a bonny face is a' they fash their heads aboot, though the same may be
already in the grip of auld Nickyben. Weel, weel, if Madam does fancy
the lad--an' he's no bad lookin', I'll say that--she may just hae her
ain way, and I'll keep my e'e on baith.'

He looked grimly at the young man as he came briskly forward with a gay
smile.

'Ye're a verra early bird,' he said, fondling his frill of white hair,
and looking keenly at the tall, slim figure of the Frenchman.

'Case of "must", my friend,' returned Vandeloup, coolly; 'it's only rich
men can afford to be in bed, not poor devils like me.'

'You're no muckle like ither folk,' said the suspicious old Scotchman,
with a condemnatory sniff.

'Of that I am glad,' retorted Vandeloup, with suavity, as he walked
beside him to the men's quarters. 'What a horrible thing to be the
duplicate of half-a-dozen other men. By the way,' breaking off into a
new subject, 'Madame Midas is charming.'

'Aye, aye,' said Archie, jealously, 'we ken all aboot they
French-fangled way o' gieing pretty words, and deil a scrap of truth in
ony o' them.'

Gaston was about to protest that he said no more than he felt, which was
indeed the truth, but Archie impatiently hurried him off to breakfast at
the office, as he declared himself famishing. They made a hearty meal,
and, having had a smoke and a talk, prepared to go below.

First of all, they arrayed themselves in underground garments--not grave
clothes, though the name is certainly suggestive of the cemetery--which
consisted of canvas trousers, heavy boots, blue blouses of a rough
woollen material, and a sou'wester each. Thus accoutred, they went
along to the foot of the poppet heads, and Archie having opened a door
therein, Vandeloup saw the mouth of the shaft yawning dark and gloomy
at his feet. As he stood there, gazing at the black hole which seemed to
pierce down into the entrails of the earth, he turned round to take one
last look at the sun before descending to the nether world.

This is quite a new experience to me,' he said, as they stepped into the
wet iron cage, which had ascended to receive them in answer to Archie's
signal, and now commenced to drop down silently and swiftly into the
pitchy darkness. 'It puts me in mind of Jules Verne's romances.'

Archie did not reply, for he was too much occupied in lighting his
candle to answer, and, moreover, knew nothing about romances, and cared
still less. So they went on sliding down noiselessly into the gloom,
while the water, falling from all parts of the shaft, kept splashing
constantly on the top of the cage and running in little streams over
their shoulders.

'It's like a nightmare,' thought the Frenchman, with a nervous shudder,
as he saw the wet walls gleaming in the faint light of the candle.
'Worthy of Dante's "Inferno".'

At last they reached the ground, and found themselves in the main
chamber, from whence the galleries branched off to east and west.

It was upheld on all sides by heavy wooden supports of bluegum and
stringy bark, the scarred surfaces of which made them look like the
hieroglyphic pillars in old Egyptian temples. The walls were dripping
with damp, and the floor of the chamber, though covered with iron
plates, was nearly an inch deep with yellow-looking water, discoloured
by the clay of the mine. Two miners in rough canvas clothes were
waiting here, and every now and then a trolly laden with wash would roll
suddenly out of one of the galleries with a candle fastened in front of
it, and would be pushed into the cage and sent up to the puddlers. Round
the walls candles fastened to spikes were stuck into the woodwork, and
in their yellow glimmer the great drops of water clinging to the roof
and sides of the chamber shone like diamonds.

'Aladdin's garden,' observed Vandeloup, gaily, as he lighted his candle
at that of Archie's and went towards the eastern gallery, 'only the
jewels are not substantial enough.'

Archie showed the Frenchman how to carry his candle in the miner's
manner, so that it could not go out, which consisted in holding it low
down between the forefinger and third finger, so that the hollow palm of
the hand formed a kind of shield; and then Vandeloup, hearing the sound
of falling water close to him, asked what it was, whereupon Archie
explained it was for ventilating purposes. The water fell the whole
height of the mine through a pipe into a bucket, and a few feet above
this another pipe was joined at right angles to the first and stretched
along the gallery near the roof like a never-ending serpent right to the
end of the drive. The air was driven along this by the water, and then,
being released from the pipe, returned back through the gallery, so that
there was a constant current circulating all through the mine.

As they groped their way slowly along, their feet splashed into pools
of yellow clayey water at the sides of the drive, or stumbled over the
rough ground and rugged rails laid down for the trollies. All along the
gallery, at regular intervals, were posts of stringy bark in a vertical
position, while beams of the same were laid horizontally across the top,
but so low that Vandeloup had to stoop constantly to prevent himself
knocking his head against their irregular projections.

Clinging to these side posts were masses of white fungus, which the
miners use to remove discolorations from their hands, and from the roof
also it hung like great drifts of snow, agitated with every breath of
wind as the keen air, damped and chilled by the underground darkness,
rushed past them. Every now and then they would hear a faint rumble in
the distance, and Archie would drag his companion to one side while a
trolly laden with white, wet-looking wash, and impelled by a runner,
would roll past with a roaring and grinding of wheels.

At intervals on each side of the main drive black chasms appeared, which
Archie informed his companion were drives put in to test the wash, and
as these smaller galleries continued branching off, Vandeloup thought
the whole mine resembled nothing so much as a herring-bone.

Being accustomed to the darkness and knowing every inch of the way, the
manager moved forward rapidly, and sometimes Vandeloup lagged so far
behind that all he could see of his guide was the candle he carried,
shining like a pale yellow star in the pitchy darkness. At last McIntosh
went into one of the side galleries, and going up an iron ladder fixed
to the side of the wall, they came to a second gallery thirty feet above
the other, and branching off at right angles.

This was where the wash was to be found, for, as Archie informed
Vandeloup, the main drives of a mine were always put down thirty or
forty feet below the wash, and then they could work up to the higher
levels, the reason of this being that the leads had a downward tendency,
and it was necessary for the main drive to be sunk below, as before
mentioned, in order to get the proper levels and judge the gutters
correctly. At the top of the ladder they found some empty trucks which
had delivered their burden into a kind of shoot, through which it fell
to the lower level, and there another truck was waiting to take it to
the main shaft, from whence it went up to the puddlers.

Archie made Vandeloup get into one of these trucks, and though they were
all wet and covered with clay, he was glad to do so, and be smoothly
carried along, instead of stumbling over the rails and splashing among
the pools of water. Every now and then as they went along there would be
a gush of water from the dripping walls, which was taken along in
pipes to the main chamber, and from thence pumped out of the mine by a
powerful pump, worked by a beam engine, by which means the mine was kept
dry.

At last, after they had gone some considerable distance, they saw the
dim light of a candle, and heard the dull blows of a pick, then found
themselves at the end of the drive, where a miner was working at the
wash. The wash wherein the gold is found was exceedingly well defined,
and represented a stratified appearance, being sandwiched in between a
bed of white pipe-clay and a top layer of brownish earth, interspersed
with gravel. Every blow of the pick sent forth showers of sparks in all
directions, and as fast as the wash was broken down the runner filled up
the trollies with it. After asking the miner about the character of the
wash, and testing some himself in a shovel, Archie left the gallery,
and going back to the shoot, they descended again to the main drive, and
visited several other faces of wash, the journey in each instance being
exactly the same in all respects. Each face had a man working at it,
sometimes two, and a runner who loaded the trucks, and ran them along to
the shoots. In spite of the ventilation, Vandeloup felt as if he was in
a Turkish bath, and the heat was in some places very great. At the end
of one of the drives McIntosh called Vandeloup, and on going towards
him the young man found him seated on a truck with the plan of the
mine before him, as he wanted to show him all the ramifications of the
workings.

The plan looked more like a map of a city than anything else, with
the main drive doing duty as the principal street, and all the little
galleries, branching off in endless confusion, looked like the lanes and
alleys of a populous town.

'It's like the catacombs in Rome,' said Vandeloup to McIntosh, after
he had contemplated the plan for some time; 'one could easily get lost
here.'

'He micht,' returned McIntosh, cautiously, 'if he didna ken a' aboot
the lie of the mine--o'er yonder,' putting one finger on the plan
and pointing with the other to the right of the tunnel; 'we found a
twenty-ounce nugget yesterday, and ain afore that o' twenty-five, and
in the first face we were at twa months ago o'er there,' pointing to the
left, 'there was yin big ain I ca'd the Villiers nugget, which as ye ken
is Madame's name.'

'Oh, yes, I know that,' said Vandeloup, much interested; 'do you
christen all your nuggets?'

'If they're big enough,' replied Archie.

'Then I hope you will find a hundred-ounce lump of gold, and call it the
Vandeloup,' returned the young man, laughing.

There's mony a true word spoke in jest, laddie,' said Archie, gravely;
'when we get to the Deil's Lead we may find ain o' that size.'

'What do you mean by leads?' asked Vandeloup, considerably puzzled.

Thereupon Archie opened his mouth, and gave the young man a scientific
lecture on mining, the pith of which was as follows:--

'Did ye no ken,' said Mr McIntosh, sagaciously, 'in the auld days--I
winna say but what it micht be as far back as the Fa' o' Man, may be a
wee bit farther--the rains washed a' the gold fra the taps o' the hills,
where the quartz reefs were, down tae the valleys below, where the
rivers ye ken were flowin'. And as the ages went on, an' nature, under
the guidance o' the Almighty, performed her work, the river bed, wiv
a' its gold, would be covered o'er with anither formation, and then the
river, or anither yin, would flow on a new bed, and the precious metal
would be washed fra the hills in the same way as I tauld ye of, and the
second river bed would be also covered o'er, and sae the same game went
on and is still progressin'. Sae when the first miners came doon tae
this land of Ophir the gold they got by scratchin' the tap of the earth
was the latest deposit, and when ye gae doon a few hundred feet ye come
on the second river--or rather, I should say, the bed o' the former
river-and it is there that the gold is tae be found; and these dried-up
rivers we ca' leads. Noo, laddie, ye ma ken that at present we are in
the bed o' ain o' these auld streams three hun'red feet frae the tap o'
the earth, and it's here we get the gold, and as we gae on we follow the
wandrin's o' the river and lose sight o' it.'

'Yes,' said Vandeloup quickly, 'but you lost this river you call the
Devil's Lead--how was that?'

'Weel,' said Mr McIntosh, deliberately, 'rivers are varra like human
bein's in the queer twists they take, and the Deil's Lead seems to hae
been ain like that. At present we are on the banks o' it, where we noo
get these nuggets; but 'tis the bed I want, d'ye ken, the centre, for
its there the gold is; losh, man,' he went on, excitedly, rising to his
feet and rolling up the plan, 'ye dinna ken how rich the Deil's Lead is;
there's just a fortune in it.'

"I suppose these rivers must stop at a certain depth?"

"Ou, ay," returned the old Scotchman, "we gae doon an' doon till we
come on what we ma ca' the primary rock, and under that there is
nothin'--except," with a touch of religious enthusiasm, "maybe 'tis
the bottomless pit, where auld Hornie dwells, as we are tauld in the
Screepture; noo let us gae up again, an' I'll show ye the puddlers at
wark."

Vandeloup had not the least idea what the puddlers were, but desirous of
learning, he followed his guide, who led him into another gallery, which
formed a kind of loop, and joined again with the main drive. As Gaston
stumbled along, he felt a touch on his shoulder, and on turning, saw it
was Pierre, who had been put to work with the other men, and was acting
as one of the runners.

"Ah! you are there, my friend," said Vandeloup, coolly, looking at the
uncouth figure before him by the feeble glimmer of his candle; "work
away, work away; it's not very pleasant, but at all events," in a rapid
whisper, "it's better than New Caledonia."

Pierre nodded in a sullen manner, and went back to his work, while
Vandeloup hurried on to catch up to McIntosh, who was now far ahead.

"I wish," said this pleasant young man to himself, as he stumbled along,
"I wish that the mine would fall in and crush Pierre; he's such a dead
weight to be hanging round my neck; besides, he has such a gaol-bird
look about him that it's enough to make the police find out where he
came from; if they do, good-bye to wealth and respectability."

He found Archie waiting for him at the entrance to the main drive, and
they soon arrived at the bottom of the shaft, got into the cage, and at
last reached the top of the earth again. Vandeloup drew a long breath of
the fresh pure air, but his eyes felt quite painful in the vivid glare
of the sun.

"I don't envy the gnomes," he said gaily to Archie as they went on to
the puddlers; "they must have been subject to chronic rheumatism."

Mr McIntosh, not having an acquaintance with fairy lore, said nothing in
reply, but took Vandeloup to the puddlers, and showed all the process of
getting the gold.

The wash was carried along in the trucks from the top of the shaft
to the puddlers, which were large circular vats into which water was
constantly gushing. The wash dirt being put into these, there was an
iron ring held up by chains, having blunt spikes to it, which was called
a harrow. Two of these being attached to beams laid crosswise were
dragged round and round among the wash by the constant revolution of
the cross-pieces. This soon reduced all the wash dirt to a kind of fine,
creamy-looking syrup, with heavy white stones in it, which were removed
every now and then by the man in charge of the machine. Descending to
the second story of the framework, Vandeloup found himself in a
square chamber, the roof of which was the puddler. In this roof was
a trap-door, and when the wash dirt had been sufficiently mixed the
trap-door was opened, and it was precipitated through on to the floor
of the second chamber. A kind of broad trough, running in a slanting
direction and called a sluice, was on one side, and into this a quantity
of wash was put, and a tap at the top turned on, which caused the
water to wash the dirt down the sluice. Another man at the foot, with
a pitchfork, kept shifting up the stones which were mixed up with the
gravel, and by degrees all the surplus dirt was washed away, leaving
only these stones and a kind of fine black sand, in which the gold being
heavy, had stayed. This sand was carefully gathered up with a brush
and iron trowel into a shallow tin basin, and then an experienced miner
carefully manipulated the same with clear water. What with blowing with
the breath, and allowing the water to flow gently over it, all the
black sand was soon taken away, and the bottom of the tin dish was
then covered with dirty yellow grains of gold interspersed with little
water-worn nuggets. Archie took the gold and carried it down to the
office, where it was first weighed and then put into a little canvas
bag, which would be taken to the bank in Ballarat, and there sold at the
rate of four pounds an ounce or thereabouts.

'Sae this, ye ken,' said Archie, when he had finished all his
explanations, 'is the way ye get gold.'

'My faith,' said Vandeloup, carelessly, with a merry laugh, 'gold is as
hard to get in its natural state as in its artificial.'

"An' harder," retorted Archie, "forbye there's nae sic wicked wark aboot
it."

"Madame will be rich some day," remarked Vandeloup, as they left the
office and walked up towards the house.

"Maybe she will," replied the other, cautiously. "Australia's a gran'
place for the siller, ye ken. I'm no verra far wrang but what wi'
industry and perseverance ye may mak a wee bit siller yersel', laddie."

"It won't be my fault if I don't," returned M. Vandeloup, gaily; "and
Madame Midas," he added, mentally, "will be an excellent person to
assist me in doing so."



CHAPTER VI

KITTY


Gaston Vandeloup having passed all his life in cities found that his
existence on the Pactolus claim was likely to be very dreary. Day after
day he arose in the morning, did his office work, ate his meals,
and after a talk with Madame Midas in the evening went to bed at ten
o'clock. Such Arcadian simplicity as this was not likely to suit the
highly cultivated tastes he had acquired in his earlier life. As to the
episode of New Caledonia M. Vandeloup dismissed it completely from
his mind, for this young man never permitted his thoughts to dwell on
disagreeable subjects.

His experiences as a convict had been novel but not pleasant, and he
looked upon the time which had elapsed since he left France in the
convict ship to the day he landed on the coast of Queensland in an open
boat as a bad nightmare, and would willingly have tried to treat it as
such, only the constant sight of his dumb companion, Pierre Lemaire,
reminded him only too vividly of the reality of his trouble. Often and
often did he wish that Pierre would break his neck, or that the mine
would fall in and crush him to death; but nothing of the sort happened,
and Pierre continued to vex his eyes and to follow him about with a
dog-like fidelity which arose--not from any love of the young man,
but--from the fact that he found himself a stranger in a strange land,
and Vandeloup was the only person he knew. With such a millstone round
his neck, the young Frenchman often despaired of being able to get on in
Australia. Meanwhile he surrendered himself to the situation with a kind
of cynical resignation, and looked hopefully forward to the time when a
kind Providence would rid him of his unpleasant friend.

The feelings of Madame Midas towards Vandeloup were curious. She had
been a very impressionable girl, and her ill-fated union with Villiers
had not quite succeeded in deadening all her feelings, though it had
doubtless gone a good way towards doing so. Being of an appreciative
nature, she liked to hear Vandeloup talk of his brilliant life in Paris,
Vienna, London, and other famous cities, which to her were merely names.
For such a young man he had certainly seen a great deal of life, and,
added to this, his skill as a talker was considerable, so that he
frequently held Madame, Selina, and McIntosh spell-bound by his
fairy-like descriptions and eloquent conversation. Of course, he only
talked of the most general subjects to Mrs Villiers, and never by any
chance let slip that he knew the seamy side of life--a side with which
this versatile young gentleman was pretty well acquainted. As a worker,
Gaston was decidedly a success. Being quick at figures and easily taught
anything, he soon mastered all the details of the business connected
with the Pactolus claim, and Madame found that she could leave
everything to him with perfect safety, and could rely on all matters of
business being well and promptly attended to. But she was too clever
a woman to let him manage things himself, or even know how much she
trusted him; and Vandeloup knew that whatever he did those calm dark
eyes were on him, and that the least slip or neglect on his part would
bring Madame Midas to his side with her quiet voice and inflexible will
to put him right again.

Consequently the Frenchman was careful not to digress or to take too
much upon himself, but did his work promptly and carefully, and soon
became quite indispensable to the work of the mine. In addition to this
he had made himself very popular with the men, and as the months rolled
on was looked upon quite as a fixture in the Pactolus claim.

As for Pierre Lemaire, he did his work well, ate and slept, and kept his
eye on his companion in case he should leave him in the lurch; but no
one would have guessed that the two men, so different in appearance,
were bound together by a guilty secret, or were, morally speaking, both
on the same level as convicts from a French prison.

A whole month had elapsed since Madame had engaged M. Vandeloup and his
friend, but as yet the Devil's Lead had not been found. Madame, however,
was strong in her belief that it would soon be discovered, for her
luck--the luck of Madame Midas--was getting quite a proverb in Ballarat.

One bright morning Vandeloup was in the office running up endless
columns of figures, and Madame, dressed in her underground garments, was
making ready to go below, just having stepped in to see Gaston.

'By the way, M. Vandeloup,' she said in English, for it was only in the
evenings they spoke French, 'I am expecting a young lady this morning,
so you can tell her I have gone down the mine, but will be back in an
hour if she will wait for me.'

'Certainly, Madame,' said Vandeloup, looking up with his bright smile;
'and the young lady's name?'

'Kitty Marchurst,' replied Madame, pausing a moment at the door of the
office; 'she is the daughter of the Rev. Mark Marchurst, a minister at
Ballarat. I think you will like her, M. Vandeloup,' she went on, in
a conversational tone; 'she is a charming girl--only seventeen, and
extremely pretty.'

'Then I am sure to like her,' returned Gaston, gaily; 'I never could
resist the charm of a pretty woman.'

'Mind,' said Madame, severely, holding up her finger, 'you must not turn
my favourite's head with any of your idle compliments; she has been very
strictly brought up, and the language of gallantry is Greek to her.'

Vandeloup tried to look penitent, and failed utterly.

'Madame,' he said, rising from his seat, and gravely bowing, 'I will
speak of nothing to Mademoiselle Kitty but of the weather and the crops
till you return.'

Madame laughed pleasantly.

'You are incorrigible, M. Vandeloup,' she said, as she turned to go.
'However, don't forget what I said, for I trust you.'

When Mrs Villiers had gone, closing the office door after her, Gaston
was silent for a few minutes, and then burst out laughing.

'She trusts me,' he said, in a mocking tone. 'In heaven's name, why? I
never did pretend to be a saint, and I'm certainly not going to be one
because I'm put on my word of honour. Madame,' with an ironical bow in
the direction of the closed door, 'since you trust me I will not speak
of love to this bread-and-butter miss, unless she proves more than
ordinarily pretty, in which case,' shrugging his shoulders, 'I'm afraid
I must betray your trust, and follow my own judgment.'

He laughed again, and then, going back to his desk, began to add up
his figures. At the second column, however, he paused, and commenced to
sketch faces on the blotting paper.

'She's the daughter of a minister,' he said, musingly. 'I can guess,
then, what like she is--prim and demure, like a caricature by Cham.
In that case she will be safe from me, for I could never bear an ugly
woman. By the way, I wonder if ugly women think themselves pretty; their
mirrors must lie most obligingly if they do. There was Adele, she was
decidedly plain, not to say ugly, and yet so brilliant in her talk. I
was sorry she died; yes, even though she was the cause of my exile to
New Caledonia. Bah! it is always a woman one has to thank for one's
misfortunes--curse them; though why I should I don't know, for they
have always been good friends to me. Ah, well, to return to business,
Mademoiselle Kitty is coming, and I must behave like a bear in case she
should think my intentions are wrong.'

He went to work on the figures again, when suddenly he heard a high
clear voice singing outside. At first he thought it was a bird, but
no bird could execute such trills and shakes, so by the time the voice
arrived at the office door M. Vandeloup came to the conclusion that
the owner of the voice was a woman, and that the woman was Miss Kitty
Marchurst.

He leaned back in his chair and wondered idly if she would knock at the
door or enter without ceremony. The latter course was the one adopted by
Miss Marchurst, for she threw open the door and stood there blushing and
pouting at the embarrassing situation in which she now found herself.

'I thought I would find Mrs Villiers here,' she said, in a low, sweet
voice, the peculiar timbre of which sent a thrill through Gaston's young
blood, as he arose to his feet. Then she looked up, and catching his
dark eyes fixed on her with a good deal of admiration in them, she
looked down and commenced drawing figures on the dusty floor with the
tip of a very dainty shoe.

'Madame has gone down the mine,' said M. Vandeloup, politely, 'but she
desired me to say that she would be back soon, and that you were to wait
here, and I was to entertain you;' then, with a grave bow, he placed the
only chair in the office at the disposal of his visitor, and leaned
up against the mantelpiece in an attitude of unstudied grace. Miss
Marchurst accepted his offer, and depositing her small person in the
big cane chair, she took furtive glances at him, while Gaston, whose
experience of women was by no means limited, looked at her coolly, in
a manner which would have been rude but for the charming smile which
quivered upon his lips.

Kitty Marchurst was a veritable fairy in size, and her hands and feet
were exquisitely formed, while her figure had all the plumpness and
roundness of a girl of seventeen--which age she was, though she really
did not look more than fourteen. An innocent child-like face, two limpid
blue eyes, a straight little nose, and a charming rose-lipped mouth
were Kitty's principal attractions, and her hair was really wonderful,
growing all over her head in crisp golden curls. Child-like enough her
face looked in repose, but with the smile came the woman--such a smile,
a laughing merry expression such as the Greeks gave to Hebe. Dressed in
a rough white dress trimmed with pale blue ribbons, and her golden head
surmounted by a sailor hat, with a scarf of the same azure hue tied
around it, Kitty looked really charming, and Vandeloup could hardly
restrain himself from taking her up in his arms and kissing her, so
delightfully fresh and piquant she appeared. Kitty, on her side, had
examined Gaston with a woman's quickness of taking in details, and she
mentally decided he was the best-looking man she had ever seen, only
she wished he would talk. Shyness was not a part of her nature, so after
waiting a reasonable time for Vandeloup to commence, she determined to
start herself.

'I'm waiting to be entertained,' she said, in a hurried voice, raising
her eyes; then afraid of her own temerity, she looked down again.

Gaston smiled a little at Kitty's outspoken remark, but remembering
Madame's injunction he rather mischievously determined to carry out her
desires to the letter.

'It is a very nice day,' he said, gravely. Kitty looked up and laughed
merrily.

'I don't think that's a very original remark,' she said coolly,
producing an apple from her pocket. 'If that's all you've got to say, I
hope Madame won't be long.'

Vandeloup laughed again at her petulance, and eyed her critically as she
took a bit out of the red side of the apple with her white teeth.

'You like apples?' he asked, very much amused by her candour.

'Pretty well,' returned Miss Marchurst, eyeing the fruit in a
disparaging manner; 'peaches are nicer; are Madame's peaches ripe?'
looking anxiously at him.

'I think they are,' rejoined Gaston, gravely.

'Then we'll have some for tea,' decided Kitty, taking another bite out
of her apple.

'I'm going to stay to tea, you know,' she went on in a conversational
tone. 'I always stay to tea when I'm on a visit here, and then
Brown--that's our man,' in an explanatory manner, 'comes and fetches me
home.'

'Happy Brown!' murmured Vandeloup, who really meant what he said.

Kitty laughed, and blushed.

'I've heard all about you,' she said, coolly, nodding to him.

'Nothing to my disadvantage, I hope,' anxiously.

'Oh dear, no: rather the other way,' returned Miss Marchurst, gaily.
'They said you were good-looking--and so you are, very good-looking.'

Gaston bowed and laughed, rather amused at the way she spoke, for he was
used to being flattered by women, though hardly in the outspoken way of
this country maiden.

'She's been strictly brought up,' he muttered sarcastically, 'I can see
that. Eve before the fall in all her innocence.'

'I don't like your eyes,' said Miss Kitty, suddenly.

'What's the matter with them?' with a quizzical glance.

'They look wicked.'

'Ah, then they belie the soul within,' returned Vandeloup, seriously. 'I
assure you, I'm a very good young man.'

Then I'm sure not to like you,' said Kitty, gravely shaking her golden
head. 'Pa's a minister, you know, and nothing but good young men come to
our house; they're all so horrid,' viciously, 'I hate 'em.'

Vandeloup laughed so much at this that Kitty rose to her feet and looked
offended.

'I don't know what you are laughing at,' she said, throwing her
half-eaten apple out of the door; 'but I don't believe you're a good
young man. You look awfully bad,' seriously. 'Really, I don't think I
ever saw anyone look so bad.'

'Suppose you undertake my reformation?' suggested Vandeloup, eagerly.

'Oh! I couldn't; it wouldn't be right; but,' brightly, 'pa will.'

'I don't think I'll trouble him,' said Gaston, hastily, who by no means
relished the idea. 'I'm too far gone to be any good.'

She was about to reply when Madame Midas entered, and Kitty flew to her
with a cry of delight.

'Why, Kitty,' said Madame, highly pleased, 'I am so glad to see you, my
dear; but keep off, or I'll be spoiling your dress.'

'Yes, so you will,' said Kitty, retreating to a safe distance; 'what a
long time you have been.'

'Have I, dear?' said Madame, taking off her underground dress; 'I hope
M. Vandeloup has proved a good substitute.'

'Madame,' answered Vandeloup, gaily, as he assisted Mrs Villiers to
doff her muddy garments, 'we have been talking about the crops and the
weather.'

'Oh, indeed,' replied Mrs Villiers, who saw the flush on Kitty's cheek,
and by no means approved of it; 'it must have been very entertaining.'

'Very!' assented Gaston, going back to his desk.

'Come along, Kitty,' said Madame, with a keen glance at her clerk, and
taking Kitty's arm within her own, 'let us go to the house, and see if
we can find any peaches.'

'I hope we'll find some big ones,' said Kitty, gluttonously, as she
danced along by the side of Mrs Villiers.

'Temptation has been placed in my path in a very attractive form,'
said Vandeloup to himself, as he went back to those dreary columns of
figures, 'and I'm afraid that I will not be able to resist.'

When he came home to tea he found Kitty was as joyous and full of life
as ever, in spite of the long hot afternoon and the restless energy with
which she had been running about. Even Madame Midas felt weary and worn
out by the heat of the day, and was sitting tranquilly by the window;
but Kitty, with bright eyes and restless feet, followed Selina all over
the house, under the pretence of helping her, an infliction which that
sage spinster bore with patient resignation.

After tea it was too hot to light the lamp, and even Selina let the fire
go out, while all the windows and doors were open to let the cool
night wind blow in. Vandeloup sat on the verandah with McIntosh smoking
cigarettes and listening to Madame, who was playing Mendelssohn's 'In a
Gondola', that dreamy melody full of the swing and rhythmic movement of
the waves. Then to please old Archie she played 'Auld Lang
Syne'--that tender caressing air which is one of the most pathetic and
heart-stirring melodies in the world. Archie leaned forward with bowed
head as the sad melody floated on the air, and his thoughts went back
to the heather-clad Scottish hills. And what was this Madame was now
playing, with its piercing sorrow and sad refrain? Surely 'Farewell to
Lochaber', that bitter lament of the exile leaving bonny Scotland far
behind. Vandeloup, who was not attending to the music, but thinking
of Kitty, saw two big tears steal down McIntosh's severe face, and
marvelled at such a sign of weakness.

'Sentiment from him?' he muttered, in a cynical tone; 'why, I should
have as soon expected blood from a stone.'

Suddenly the sad air ceased, and after a few chords, Kitty commenced to
sing to Madame's accompaniment. Gaston arose to his feet, and leaned
up against the door, for she was singing Gounod's charming valse from
'Mirella', the bird-like melody of which suited her high clear voice
to perfection. Vandeloup was rather astonished at hearing this innocent
little maiden execute the difficult valse with such ease, and her shake
was as rapid and true as if she had been trained in the best schools of
Europe. He did not know that Kitty had naturally a very flexible voice,
and that Madame had trained her for nearly a year. When the song was
ended Gaston entered the room to express his thanks and astonishment,
both of which Kitty received with bursts of laughter.

'You have a fortune in your throat, mademoiselle,' he said, with a bow,
'and I assure you I have heard all the great singers of to-day from
Patti downwards.'

'I have only been able to teach her very little,' said Madame, looking
affectionately at Miss Marchurst, who now stood by the table, blushing
at Vandeloup's praises, 'but when we find the Devil's Lead I am going to
send her home to Italy to study singing.'

'For the stage?' asked Vandeloup.

'That is as it may be,' replied Madame, enigmatically, 'but now, M.
Vandeloup, you must sing us something.'

'Oh, does he sing?' said Kitty, joyously.

'Yes, and play too,' answered Madame, as she vacated her seat at the
piano and put her arm round Kitty, 'sing us something from the "Grand
Duchess", Monsieur.'

He shook his head.

'Too gay for such an hour,' he said, running his fingers lightly over
the keys; 'I will give you something from "Faust".'

He had a pleasant tenor voice, not very strong, but singularly pure and
penetrating, and he sang 'Salve Dinora', the exquisite melody of which
touched the heart of Madame Midas with a vague longing for love and
affection, while in Kitty's breast there was a feeling she had never
felt before. Her joyousness departed, her eyes glanced at the singer in
a half-frightened manner, and she clung closer to Madame Midas as if she
were afraid, as indeed she was.

When Vandeloup finished the song he dashed into a riotous student song
which he had heard many a time in midnight Paris, and finally ended
with singing Alfred de Musset's merry little chanson, which he thought
especially appropriate to Kitty:--

Bonjour, Suzon, ma fleur des bois, Es-tu toujours la plus jolie, Je
reviens, tel que tu me vois,

D'un grand votage en Italie.

Altogether Kitty had enjoyed her evening immensely, and was quite sorry
when Brown came to take her home. Madame wrapped her up well and put her
in the buggy, but was rather startled to see her flushed cheeks, bright
eyes, and the sudden glances she stole at Vandeloup, who stood handsome
and debonair in the moonlight.

'I'm afraid I've made a mistake,' she said to herself as the buggy drove
off.

She had, for Kitty had fallen in love with the Frenchman.

And Gaston?

He walked back to the house beside Madame, thinking of Kitty, and
humming the gay refrain of the song he had been singing--

'Je passe devant ta maison Ouvre ta porte, Bonjour, Suzon.'

Decidedly it was a case of love at first sight on both sides.



CHAPTER VII

MR VILLIERS PAYS A VISIT


Slivers and his friend Villiers were by no means pleased with the
existing state of things. In sending Vandeloup to the Pactolus claim,
they had thought to compromise Madame Midas by placing her in the
society of a young and handsome man, and counting on one of two things
happening--either that Madame would fall in love with the attractive
Frenchman, and seek for a divorce in order to marry him--which divorce
Villiers would of course resist, unless she bribed him by giving him an
interest in the Pactolus--or that Villiers could assume an injured tone
and accuse Vandeloup of being his wife's lover, and threaten to divorce
her unless she made him her partner in the claim. But they had both
reckoned wrongly, for neither of these things happened, as Madame was
not in love with Vandeloup, and acted with too much circumspection to
give any opportunity for scandal. Consequently, Slivers and Co., not
finding matters going to their satisfaction, met one day at the office
of the senior partner for the purpose of discussing the affair, and
seeing what could be done towards bringing Madame Midas to their way of
thinking.

Villiers was lounging in one of the chairs, dressed in a white linen
suit, and looked rather respectable, though his inflamed face and watery
eyes showed what a drunkard he was. He was sipping a glass of whisky
and water and smoking his pipe, while he watched Slivers stumping up and
down the office, swinging his cork arm vehemently to and fro as was his
custom when excited. Billy sat on the table and eyed his master with a
steady stare, or else hopped about among the papers talking to himself.

'You thought you were going to do big things when you sent that
jackadandy out to the Pactolus,' said Villiers, after a pause.

'At any rate, I did something,' snarled Slivers, in a rage, 'which is
more than you did, you whisky barrel.'

'Look here, don't you call names,' growled Mr Villiers, in a sulky tone.
'I'm a gentleman, remember that.'

'You were a gentleman, you mean,' corrected the senior partner, with a
malignant glance of his one eye. 'What are you now?'

'A stockbroker,' retorted the other, taking a sip of whisky.

'And a damned poor one at that,' replied the other, sitting on the edge
of the table, which position caused his wooden leg to stick straight
out, a result which he immediately utilized by pointing it threateningly
in the direction of Villiers.

'Look here,' said that gentleman, suddenly sitting up in his chair in a
defiant manner, 'drop these personalities and come to business; what's
to be done? Vandeloup is firmly established there, but there's not the
slightest chance of my wife falling in love with him.'

'Wait,' said Slivers, stolidly wagging his wooden leg up and down;
'wait, you blind fool, wait.'

'Wait for the waggon!' shrieked Billy, behind, and then supplemented
his remarks by adding, 'Oh, my precious mother!' as he climbed up on
Slivers' shoulder.

'You always say wait,' growled Villiers, not paying any attention to
Billy's interruption; 'I tell you we can't wait much longer; they'll
drop on the Devil's Lead shortly, and then we'll be up a tree.'

'Then, suppose you go out to the Pactolus and see your wife,' suggested
Slivers.

'No go,' returned Villiers, gloomily, 'she'd break my head.'

'Bah! you ain't afraid of a woman, are you?' snarled Slivers, viciously.

'No, but I am of McIntosh and the rest of them,' retorted Villiers.
'What can one man do against twenty of these devils. Why, they'd kill me
if I went out there; and that infernal wife of mine wouldn't raise her
little finger to save me.'

'You're a devil!' observed Billy, eyeing Villiers from his perch on
Slivers' shoulder. 'Oh, Lord! ha! ha! ha!' going into fits of laughter;
then drawing himself suddenly up, he ejaculated 'Pickles!' and shut up.

'It's no good beating about the bush,' said the wooden-legged man,
getting down from the table. 'You go out near the claim, and see if you
can catch her; then give it to her hot.'

'What am I to say?' asked Villiers, helplessly.

Slivers looked at him with fiery scorn in his one eye.

'Say!' he shrieked, waving his cork arm, 'talk about your darned honour!
Say she's dragging your noble name through the mud, and say you'll
divorce her if she don't give you half a share in the Pactolus; that
will frighten her.'

'Pickles!' again ejaculated the parrot.

'Oh, no, it won't,' said Villiers; 'Brag's a good dog, but he don't
bite. I've tried that game on before, and it was no go.'

'Then try it your own way,' grumbled Slivers, sulkily, going to his seat
and pouring himself out some whisky. 'I don't care what you do, as long
as I get into the Pactolus, and once I'm in the devil himself won't get
me out.'

Villiers thought a moment, then turned to go.

'I'll try,' he said, as he went out of the door, 'but it's no go, I tell
you, she's stone,' and with a dismal nod he slouched away.

'Stone, is she?' cried the old man, pounding furiously on the floor with
his wooden leg, 'then I'd smash her; I'd crush her; I'd grind her into
little bits, damn her,' and overcome by his rage, Slivers shook Billy
off his shoulder and took a long drink.

Meanwhile Mr Villiers, dreading lest his courage should give way, went
to the nearest hotel and drank pretty freely so that he might bring
himself into an abnormal condition of bravery. Thus primed, he went
to the railway station, took the train to the Pactolus claim, and on
arriving at the end of his journey had one final glass of whisky to
steady his nerves.

The last straw, however, breaks the camel's back, and this last drink
reduced Mr Villiers to that mixed state which is known in colonial
phrase as half-cocked. He lurched out of the hotel, and went in the
direction of the Pactolus claim. His only difficulty was that, as a
matter of fact, the solitary mound of white earth which marked the
entrance to the mine, suddenly appeared before his eyes in a double
condition, and he beheld two Pactolus claims, which curious optical
delusion rather confused him, inasmuch as he was undecided to which he
should go.

'Itsh the drinksh,' he said at length, stopping in the middle of the
white dusty road, and looking preternaturally solemn; 'it maksh me see
double: if I see my wife, I'll see two of her, then'--with a drunken
giggle--'I'll be a bigamist.'

This idea so tickled him, that he commenced to laugh, and, finding it
inconvenient to do so on his legs, he sat down to indulge his humour
freely. A laughing jackass perched on the fence at the side of the road
heard Mr Villiers' hilarity, and, being of a convivial turn of mind
itself, went off into fits of laughter also. On hearing this echo Mr
Villiers tried to get up, in order to punish the man who mocked him,
but, though his intentions were good, his legs were unsteady, and after
one or two ineffectual attempts to rise he gave it up as a bad job. Then
rolling himself a little to one side of the dusty white road, he went
sound asleep, with his head resting on a tuft of green grass. In his
white linen suit he was hardly distinguishable in the fine white dust of
the road, and though the sun blazed hotly down on him and the mosquitos
stung him, yet he slept calmly on, and it was not till nearly four
o'clock in the afternoon that he woke up. He was more sober, but still
not quite steady, being in that disagreeable temper to which some men
are subject when suffering a recovery. Rising to his feet, with a hearty
curse, he picked up his hat and put it on; then, thrusting his hands
into his pockets, he slouched slowly along, bent upon meeting his wife
and picking a quarrel with her.

Unluckily for Madame Midas, she had that day been to Ballarat, and was
just returning. She had gone by train, and was now leaving the station
and walking home to the Pactolus along the road. Being absorbed in
thought, she did not notice the dusty figure in front of her, otherwise
she would have been sure to have recognised her husband, and would have
given him a wide berth by crossing the fields instead of going by the
road. Mr Villiers, therefore, tramped steadily on towards the Pactolus,
and his wife tramped steadily after him, until at last, at the turn of
the road where it entered her property, she overtook him.

A shudder of disgust passed through her frame as she raised her eyes and
saw him, and she made a sudden gesture as though to fall behind and
thus avoid him. It was, however, too late, for Mr Villiers, hearing
footsteps, turned suddenly and saw the woman he had come to see standing
in the middle of the road.

Husband and wife stood gazing at one another for a few moments in
silence, she looking at him with an expression of intense loathing on
her fine face, and he vainly trying to assume a dignified carriage--a
task which his late fit of drunkenness rendered difficult.

At last, his wife, drawing her dress together as though his touch would
have contaminated her, tried to pass, but on seeing this he sprang
forward, before she could change her position, and caught her wrist.

'Not yet!' he hissed through his clenched teeth; 'first you must have a
word with me.'

Madame Midas looked around for aid, but no one was in sight. They were
some distance from the Pactolus, and the heat of the afternoon being
intense, every one was inside. At last Madame saw some man moving
towards them, down the long road which led to the station, and knowing
that Vandeloup had been into town, she prayed in her heart that it might
be he, and so prepared to parley with her husband till he should come
up. Having taken this resolution, she suddenly threw off Villiers'
grasp, and turned towards him with a superb gesture of scorn.

'What do you want?' she asked in a low, clear voice, but in a tone of
concentrated passion.

'Money!' growled Villiers, insolently planting himself directly in front
of her, 'and I'm going to have it.'

'Money!' she echoed, in a tone of bitter irony; 'have you not had enough
yet? Have you not squandered every penny I had from my father in your
profligacy and evil companions? What more do you want?'

'A share in the Pactolus,' he said, sullenly.

His wife laughed scornfully. 'A share in the Pactolus!' she echoed, with
bitter sarcasm, 'A modest request truly. After squandering my fortune,
dragging me through the mire, and treating me like a slave, this man
expects to be rewarded. Listen to me, Randolph Villiers,' she said,
fiercely, stepping up to him and seizing his hand, 'this land we now
stand on is mine--the gold underneath is mine; and if you were to go
on your knees to me and beg for a morsel of bread to save you from
starving, I would not lift one finger to succour you.'

Villiers writhed like a snake under her bitter scorn.

'I understand,' he said, in a taunting tone; 'you want it for your
lover.'

'My lover? What do you mean?'

'What I say,' he retorted boldly, 'all Ballarat knows the position that
young Frenchman holds in the Pactolus claim.'

Mrs Villiers felt herself grow faint--the accusation was so horrible.
This man, who had embittered her life from the time she married him,
was still her evil genius, and was trying to ruin her in the eyes of the
world. The man she had seen on the road was now nearly up to them, and
with a revulsion of feeling she saw that it was Vandeloup. Recovering
herself with an effort, she turned and faced him steadily.

'You lied when you spoke just now,' she said in a quiet voice. 'I will
not lower myself to reply to your accusation; but, as there is a God
above us, if you dare to cross my path again, I will kill you.'

She looked so terrible when she said this that Villiers involuntarily
drew back, but recovering himself in a moment, he sprang forward and
caught her arm.

'You devil! I'll make you pay for this,' and he twisted her arm till
she thought it was broken. 'You'll kill me, will you?--you!--you!' he
shrieked, still twisting her arm and causing her intense pain, 'you
viper!'

Suddenly, when Madame was almost fainting with pain, she heard a shout,
and knew that Vandeloup had come to the rescue. He had recognised Madame
Midas down the road, and saw that her companion was threatening her; so
he made all possible speed, and arrived just in time.

Madame turned round to see Vandeloup throw her husband into a ditch by
the side of the road, and walk towards her. He was not at all excited,
but seemed as cool and calm as if he had just been shaking hands with Mr
Villiers instead of treating him violently.

'You had better go home, Madame,' he said, in his usual cool voice, 'and
leave me to deal with this--gentleman; you are not hurt?'

'Only my arm,' replied Mrs Villiers, in a faint voice; 'he nearly broke
it. But I can walk home alone.'

'If you can, do so,' said Vandeloup, with a doubtful look at her. 'I
will send him away.'

'Don't let him hurt you.'

'I don't think there's much danger,' replied the young man, with a
glance at his arms, 'I'm stronger than I look.'

'Thank you, Monsieur,' said Madame Midas, giving him her hand; 'you have
rendered me a great service, and one I will not forget.'

He bent down and kissed her hand, which action was seen by Mr Villiers
as he crawled out of the ditch. When Madame Midas was gone and Vandeloup
could see her walking homeward, he turned to look for Mr Villiers, and
found him seated on the edge of the ditch, all covered with mud and
streaming with water--presenting a most pitiable appearance. He regarded
M. Vandeloup in a most malignant manner, which, however, had no effect
on that young gentleman, who produced a cigarette, and having lighted it
proceeded to talk.

'I'm sorry I can't offer you one,' said Gaston, affably, 'but I hardly
think you would enjoy it in your present damp condition. If I might
be permitted to suggest anything,' with a polite smile, 'a bath and a
change of clothes would be most suitable to you, and you will find
both at Ballarat. I also think,' said Vandeloup, with an air of one who
thinks deeply, 'that if you hurry you will catch the next train, which
will save you a rather long walk.'

Mr Villiers glared at his tormentor in speechless anger, and tried to
look dignified, but, covered as he was with mud, his effort was not
successful.

'Do you know who I am?' he said at length, in a blustering manner.

'Under some circumstances,' said M. Vandeloup, in a smooth voice, 'I
should have taken you for a mud bank, but as you both speak and smile
I presume you are a man of the lowest type; as you English yourselves
say--a blackguard.'

'I'll smash you!' growled Villiers, stepping forward.

'I wouldn't try if I were you,' retorted Vandeloup, with a disparaging
glance. 'I am young and strong, almost a total abstainer; you, on the
contrary, are old and flabby, with the shaking nerves of an incurable
drunkard. No, it would be hardly fair for me to touch you.'

'You dare not lay a finger on me,' said Villiers, defiantly.

'Quite right,' replied Vandeloup, lighting another cigarette, 'you're
rather too dirty for close companionship. I really think you'd better
go; Monsieur Sleeves no doubt expects you.'

'And this is the man that I obtained work for,' said Mr Villiers,
addressing the air.

'It's a very ungrateful world,' said Vandeloup, calmly, with a shrug of
his shoulders; 'I never expect anything from it; I'm sorry if you do,
for you are sure to be disappointed.'

Villiers, finding he could make nothing out of the imperturbable
coolness of the young Frenchman, turned to go, but as he went, said
spitefully--

'You can tell my wife I'll pay her for this.'

'Accounts are paid on Saturdays,' called out M. Vandeloup, gaily; 'if
you call I will give you a receipt of the same kind as you had to-day.'

Villiers made no response, as he was already out of hearing, and went on
his way to the station with mud on his clothes and rage in his heart.

Vandeloup looked after him for a few minutes with a queer smile on his
lips, then turned on his heel and walked home, humming a song.



CHAPTER VIII

MADAME MIDAS STRIKES 'ILE'


Aesop knew human nature very well when he wrote his fable of the old
man and his ass, who tried to please everybody and ended up by pleasing
nobody. Bearing this in mind, Madame Midas determined to please herself,
and take no one's advice but her own with regard to Vandeloup. She knew
if she dismissed him from the mine it would give colour to her husband's
vile insinuations, so she thought the wisest plan would be to take no
notice of her meeting with him, and let things remain as they were. It
turned out to be the best thing she could have done, for though
Villiers went about Ballarat accusing her of being the young Frenchman's
mistress, everyone was too well aware of existing circumstances to
believe what he said. They knew that he had squandered his wife's
fortune, and that she had left him in disgust at his profligacy, so
they declined to believe his accusations against a woman who had
proved herself true steel in withstanding bad fortune. So Mr Villiers'
endeavours to ruin his wife only recoiled on his own head, for the
Ballarat folk argued, and rightly, that whatever she did it was not his
place to cast the first stone at her, seeing that the unsatisfactory
position she was now in was mainly his own work. Villiers, therefore,
gained nothing by his attempt to blacken his wife's character except
the contempt of everyone, and even the few friends he had gained turned
their backs on him until no one would associate with him but Slivers,
who did so in order to gain his own ends. The company had quarrelled
over the unsuccessful result of Villiers' visit to the Pactolus, and
Slivers, as senior partner, assisted by Billy, called Villiers all
the names he could lay his tongue to, which abuse Villiers accepted
in silence, not even having the spirit to resent it. But though he was
outwardly sulky and quiet, yet within he cherished a deep hatred against
his wife for the contempt with which he was treated, and inwardly vowed
to pay her out on the first feasible opportunity.

It was now nearly six months since Vandeloup had become clerk at the
Pactolus, and he was getting tired of it, only watching his opportunity
to make a little money and go to Melbourne, where he had not much doubt
as to his success. With a certain sum of money to work on, M. Vandeloup
thought that with his talents and experience of human nature he would
soon be able to make a fortune, particularly as he was quite unfettered
by any scruples, and as long as he made money he did not care how he
gained it. With such an adaptable nature he could hardly help doing
well, but in order to give him the start he required a little capital,
so stayed on at the Pactolus and saved every penny he earned in the hope
of soon accumulating enough to leave. Another thing that kept him there
was his love for Kitty--not a very pure or elevating love certainly,
still it was love for all that, and Vandeloup could not tear himself
away from the place where she resided.

He had called on Kitty's father, the Rev. Mark Marchurst, who lived
at the top of Black Hill, near Ballarat, and did not like him. Mr
Marchurst, a grave, quiet man, who was the pastor of a particular sect,
calling themselves very modestly 'The Elect', was hardly the kind of
individual to attract a brilliant young fellow like Vandeloup, and the
wonder was that he ever had such a charming daughter.

Kitty had fallen deeply in love with Vandeloup, so as he told her he
loved her in return, she thought that some day they would get married.
But nothing was farther from M. Vandeloup's thoughts than marriage, even
with Kitty, for he knew how foolish it would be for him to marry before
making a position.

'I don't want a wife to drag me back,' he said to himself one day when
Kitty had hinted at matrimony; 'when I am wealthy it will be time enough
to think of marriage, but it will be long before I am rich, and can I
wait for Bebe all that time? Alas! I do not think so.'

The fact was, the young man was very liberal in his ideas, and
infinitely preferred a mistress to a wife. He had not any evil designs
towards Kitty, but her bright manner and charming face pleased him,
and he simply enjoyed the hours as they passed. She idolised him, and
Gaston, who was accustomed to be petted and caressed by women, accepted
all her affection as his due. Curiously enough, Madame Midas, lynx-eyed
as she was, never suspected the true state of affairs. Vandeloup had
told Kitty that no one was to know of their love for one another, and
though Kitty was dying to tell Madame about it, yet she kept silent
at his request, and acted so indifferently towards him when under Mrs
Villiers' eye, that any doubts that lady had about the fascinations of
her clerk soon vanished.

As to M. Vandeloup, the situation was an old one for him accustomed
as he had been to carry on with guilty wives under the very noses of
unsuspecting husbands, and on this occasion he acted admirably. He was
very friendly with Kitty in public--evidently looking upon her as a mere
child, although he made no difference in his manner. And this innocent
intrigue gave a piquant flavour to his otherwise dull life.

Meanwhile, the Devil's Lead was still undiscovered, many people
declaring it was a myth, and that such a lead had never existed. Three
people, however, had a firm belief in its existence, and were certain
it would be found some day--this trio being McIntosh, Madame Midas, and
Slivers.

The Pactolus claim was a sort of Naboth's vineyard to Slivers, who, in
company with Billy, used to sit in his dingy little office and grind his
teeth as he thought of all the wealth lying beneath those green fields.
He had once even gone so far as to offer to buy a share in the claim
from Madame Midas, but had been promptly refused by that lady--a
circumstance which by no means added to his love for her.

Still the Devil's Lead was not found, and people were beginning to
disbelieve in its existence, when suddenly indications appeared which
showed that it was near at hand. Nuggets, some large, some small,
began to be constantly discovered, and every day news was brought into
Ballarat about the turning-up of a thirty-ounce or a twenty-ounce nugget
in the Pactolus, when, to crown all, the news came and ran like wildfire
through the city that a three hundred ounce nugget had been unearthed.

There was great excitement over this, as such a large one had not been
found for some time, and when Slivers heard of its discovery he cursed
and swore most horribly; for with his long experience of gold mining,
he knew that the long-looked for Devil's Lead was near at hand. Billy,
becoming excited with his master, began to swear also; and these
two companions cursed Madame Midas and all that belonged to her most
heartily. If Slivers could only have seen the interior of Madame Midas's
dining room, by some trick of necromancy, he would certainly not have
been able to do the subject justice in the swearing line.

There were present Madame Midas, Selina, McIntosh, and Vandeloup, and
they were all gathered round the table looking at the famous nugget.
There it lay in the centre of the table, a virgin mass of gold, all
water-worn and polished, hollowed out like a honeycomb, and dotted over
with white pebbles like currants in a plum pudding.

'I think I'll send it to Melbourne for exhibition,' said Mrs Villiers,
touching the nugget very lightly with her fingers.

''Deed, mum, and 'tis worth it,' replied McIntosh, whose severe face was
relaxed in a grimly pleasant manner; 'but losh! 'tis naething tae what
'ull come oot o' the Deil's Lead.'

'Oh, come, now,' said Vandeloup, with a disbelieving smile, 'the Devil's
Lead won't consist of nuggets like that.'

'Maybe no,' returned the old Scotchman, dryly; 'but every mickle makes
a muckle, and ye ken the Lead wull hae mony sma' nuggets, which is mair
paying, to my mind, than yin large ain.'

'What's the time?' asked Madame, rather irrelevantly, turning to Archie.

Mr McIntosh drew out the large silver watch, which was part and parcel
of himself, and answered gravely that it was two o'clock.

'Then I'll tell you what,' said Mrs Villiers, rising; 'I'll take it in
with me to Ballarat and show it to Mr Marchurst.'

McIntosh drew down the corners of his mouth, for, as a rigid
Presbyterian, he by no means approved of Marchurst's heretical opinions,
but of course said nothing as Madame wished it.

'Can I come with you, Madame?' said Vandeloup, eagerly, for he never
lost an opportunity of seeing Kitty if he could help it.

'Certainly,' replied Madame, graciously; 'we will start at once.'

Vandeloup was going away to get ready, when McIntosh stopped him.

'That friend o' yours is gangin' awa' t' the toun the day,' he said,
touching Vandeloup lightly on the shoulder.

'What for?' asked the Frenchman, carelessly.

''Tis to see the play actors, I'm thinkin',' returned Archie, dryly.
'He wants tae stap all nicht i' the toun, so I've let him gae, an' have
tauld him to pit up at the Wattle Tree Hotel, the landlord o' which is a
freend o' mine.'

'Very kind of you, I'm sure,' said Vandeloup, with a pleasant smile;
'but may I ask what play actors you refer to?'

'I dinna ken anythin' about sic folk,' retorted Mr McIntosh, piously,
'the deil's ain bairns, wha wull gang into the pit of Tophet.'

'Aren't you rather hard on them, Archie?' said Madame Midas, smiling
quietly. 'I'm very fond of the theatre myself.'

'It's no for me to give ma opeenion about ma betters,' replied Archie,
ungraciously, as he went out to see after the horse and trap; 'but I
dinna care aboot sitting in the seat of the scornfu', or walking in the
ways of the unrighteous,' and with this parting shot at Vandeloup he
went away.

That young man shrugged his shoulders, and looked at Madame Midas in
such a comical manner that she could not help smiling.

'You must forgive Archie,' she said, pausing at the door of her bedroom
for a moment. 'He has been brought up severely, and it is hard to rid
oneself of the traditions of youth.'

'Very traditional in this case, I'm afraid,' answered Gaston, referring
to McIntosh's age.

'If you like,' said Madame, in a kindly tone, 'you can stay in to-night
yourself, and go to the theatre.'

'Thank you, Madame,' replied Gaston, gravely. 'I will avail myself of
your kind permission.'

'I'm afraid you will find an Australian provincial company rather a
change after the Parisian theatres,' said Mrs Villiers, as she vanished
into her room.

Vandeloup smiled, and turned to Selina, who was busy about her household
work.

'Mademoiselle Selina,' he said, gaily, 'I am in want of a proverb to
answer Madame; if I can't get the best I must be content with what I can
get. Now what piece of wisdom applies?'

Selina, flattered at being applied to, thought a moment, then raised her
head triumphantly--

'"Half a loaf is better than none,"' she announced, with a sour smile.

'Mademoiselle,' said Vandeloup, gravely regarding her as he stood at the
door, 'your wisdom is only equalled by your charming appearance,' and
with an ironical bow he went out.

Selina paused a moment in her occupation of polishing spoons, and looked
after him, doubtful as to whether he was in jest or earnest. Being
unable to decide, she resumed her work with a stifled chuckle, and
consoled herself with a proverb.

'To be good is better than to be beautiful,' which saying, as everyone
knows, is most consoling to plain-looking people.

The great nugget was carefully packed in a stout wooden box by Archie,
and placed in the trap by him with such caution that Madame, who was
already seated in it, asked him if he was afraid she would be robbed.

'It's always best to be on the richt side, mem,' said Archie, handing
her the reins; 'we dinna ken what may happen.'

'Why, no one knows I am taking this to Ballarat to-day,' said Madame,
drawing on her gloves.

'Don't they?' thought M. Vandeloup, as he took his seat beside her. 'She
doesn't know that I've told Pierre.'

And without a single thought for the woman whose confidence he was
betraying, and of whose bread and salt he had partaken, Vandeloup shook
the reins, and the horse started down the road in the direction of
Ballarat, carrying Madame Midas and her nugget.

'You carry Caesar and his fortunes, M. Vandeloup,' she said, with a
smile.

'I do better,' he answered, gaily, 'I carry Madame Midas and her luck.'



CHAPTER IX

LOVE'S YOUNG DREAM


Mr Mark Marchurst was a very peculiar man. Brought up in the
Presbyterian religion, he had early displayed his peculiarity by
differing from the elders of the church he belonged to regarding their
doctrine of eternal punishment. They, holding fast to the teachings of
Knox and Calvin, looked upon him in horror for daring to have an opinion
of his own; and as he refused to repent and have blind belief in the
teachings of those grim divines, he was turned out of the bosom of
the church. Drifting to the opposite extreme, he became a convert to
Catholicism; but, after a trial of that ancient faith, found it would
not suit him, so once more took up a neutral position. Therefore, as he
did not find either religion perfectly in accordance with his own views,
he took the law into his own hands and constructed one which was a queer
jumble of Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and Buddhism, of which last
religion he was a great admirer. As anyone with strong views and a
clever tongue will find followers, Mr Marchurst soon gathered a number
of people around him who professed a blind belief in the extraordinary
doctrines he promulgated. Having thus founded a sect he got sufficient
money out of them to build a temple--for so he called the barn-like
edifice he erected--and christened this new society which he had called
into existence 'The Elect'. About one hundred people were members of his
church, and with their subscriptions, and also having a little money of
his own, he managed to live in a quiet manner in a cottage on the Black
Hill near to his temple. Every Sunday he held forth morning and evening,
expounding his views to his sparse congregation, and was looked upon
by them as a kind of prophet. As a matter of fact, the man had that
peculiar power of fascination which seems to be inseparable from the
prophetic character, and it was his intense enthusiasm and eloquent
tongue that cast a spell over the simple-minded people who believed in
him. But his doctrines were too shallow and unsatisfactory ever to take
root, and it could be easily seen that when Marchurst died 'The Elect'
would die also,--that is, as a sect, for it was not pervaded by that
intense religious fervour which is the life and soul of a new doctrine.
The fundamental principles of his religion were extremely simple; he
saved his friends and damned his enemies, for so he styled those who
were not of the same mind as himself. If you were a member of 'The
Elect', Mr Marchurst assured you that the Golden Gate was wide open for
you, whereas if you belonged to any other denomination you were lost for
ever; so according to this liberal belief, the hundred people who formed
his congregation would all go straight to Heaven, and all the rest of
mankind would go to the devil.

In spite of the selfishness of this theory, which condemned so many
souls to perdition, Marchurst was a kindly natured man, and his religion
was more of an hallucination than anything else. He was very clever at
giving advice, and Madame Midas esteemed him highly on this account.
Though Marchurst had often tried to convert her, she refused to believe
in the shallow sophistries he set forth, and told him she had her own
views on religion, which views she declined to impart to him, though
frequently pressed to do so. The zealot regretted this obstinacy, as,
according to his creed, she was a lost soul, but he liked her too well
personally to quarrel with her on that account, consoling himself with
the reflection that sooner or later, she would seek the fold. He was
more successful with M. Vandeloup, who, having no religion whatever,
allowed Marchurst to think he had converted him, in order to see as much
as he could of Kitty. He used to attend the Sunday services regularly,
and frequently came in during the week ostensibly to talk to Marchurst
about the doctrines of 'The Elect', but in reality to see the old man's
daughter.

On this bright afternoon, when everything was bathed in sunshine, Mr
Marchurst, instead of being outside and enjoying the beauties of Nature,
was mewed up in his dismal little study, with curtains closely drawn
to exclude the light, a cup of strong tea, and the Bible open at 'The
Lamentations of Jeremiah'. His room was lined with books, but they had
not that friendly look books generally have, but, bound in dingy brown
calf, looked as grim and uninviting as their contents, which were mostly
sermons and cheerful anticipations of the bottomless pit. It was against
Marchurst's principles to gratify his senses by having nice things
around him, and his whole house was furnished in the same dismal manner.

So far did he carry this idea of mortifying the flesh through the eyes
that he had tried to induce Kitty to wear sad-coloured dresses and
poke bonnets; but in this attempt he failed lamentably, as Kitty
flatly refused to make a guy of herself, and always wore dresses of the
lightest and gayest description.

Marchurst groaned over this display of vanity, but as he could do
nothing with the obdurate Kitty, he allowed her to have her own way, and
made a virtue of necessity by calling her his 'thorn in the flesh'.

He was a tall thin man, of a bleached appearance, from staying so much
in the dark, and so loosely put together that when he bowed he did
not as much bend as tumble down from a height. In fact, he looked so
carelessly fixed up that when he sat down he made the onlooker feel
quite nervous lest he should subside into a ruin, and scatter his legs,
arms, and head promiscuously all over the place. He had a sad, pale,
eager-looking face, with dreamy eyes, which always seemed to be looking
into the spiritual world. He wore his brown hair long, as he always
maintained a man's hair was as much his glory as a woman's was hers,
quoting Samson and Absalom in support of this opinion. His arms were
long and thin, and when he gesticulated in the pulpit on Sundays flew
about like a couple of flails, which gave him a most unhappy resemblance
to a windmill. The 'Lamentations of Jeremiah' are not the most cheerful
of reading, and Mr Marchurst, imbued with the sadness of the Jewish
prophet, drinking strong tea and sitting in a darkened room, was rapidly
sinking into a very dismal frame of mind, which an outsider would have
termed a fit of the blues. He sat in his straight-backed chair taking
notes of such parts of the 'Lamentations' as would tend to depress the
spirits of the 'Elect' on Sunday, and teach them to regard life in a
proper and thoroughly miserable manner.

He was roused from his dismal musings by the quick opening of the door
of his study, when Kitty, joyous and gay in her white dress, burst like
a sunbeam into the room.

"I wish, Katherine," said her father, in a severe voice, "I wish you
would not enter so noisily and disturb my meditations."

"You'll have to put your meditations aside for a bit," said Kitty,
disrespectfully, crossing to the window and pulling aside the curtains,
"for Madame Midas and M. Vandeloup have come to see you."

A flood of golden light streamed into the dusky room, and Marchurst put
his hand to his eyes for a moment, as they were dazzled by the sudden
glare.

"They've got something to show you, papa," said Kitty, going back to the
door: "a big nugget--such a size--as large as your head."

Her father put his hand mechanically to his head to judge of the size,
and was about to answer when Madame Midas, calm, cool, and handsome,
entered the room, followed by Vandeloup, carrying a wooden box
containing the nugget. It was by no means light, and Vandeloup was quite
thankful when he placed it on the table.

"I hope I'm not disturbing you, Mr Marchurst," said Madame, sitting down
and casting a glance at the scattered papers, the cup of tea, and the
open Bible, "but I couldn't help gratifying my vanity by bringing the
new nugget for you to see."

"It's very kind of you, I'm sure," responded Mr Marchurst, politely,
giving way suddenly in the middle as if he had a hinge in his back,
which was his idea of a bow. "I hope this," laying his hand on the box,
"may be the forerunner of many such."

"Oh, it will," said Vandeloup, cheerfully, "if we can only find the
Devil's Lead."

"An unholy name," groaned Marchurst sadly, shaking his head. "Why did
you not call it something else?"

"Simply because I didn't name it," replied Madame Midas, bluntly; "but
if the lead is rich, the name doesn't matter much."

"Of course not," broke in Kitty, impatiently, being anxious to see the
nugget. "Do open the box; I'm dying to see it."

"Katherine! Katherine!" said Marchurst, reprovingly, as Vandeloup opened
the box, "how you do exaggerate--ah!" he broke off his exhortation
suddenly, for the box was open, and the great mass of gold was
glittering in its depths. 'Wonderful!'

'What a size!' cried Kitty, clapping her hands as Vandeloup lifted it
out and placed it on the table; 'how much is it worth?'

'About twelve hundred pounds,' said Madame, quietly, though her heart
throbbed with pride as she looked at her nugget; 'it weighs three
hundred ounces.'

'Wonderful!' reiterated the old man, passing his thin hand lightly over
the rough surface; 'verily the Lord hath hidden great treasure in the
entrails of the earth, and the Pactolus would seem to be a land of Ophir
when it yields such wealth as this.'

The nugget was duly admired by everyone, and then Brown and Jane, who
formed the household of Marchurst, were called in to look at it. They
both expressed such astonishment and wonder, that Marchurst felt himself
compelled to admonish them against prizing the treasures of earth above
those of heaven. Vandeloup, afraid that they were in for a sermon,
beckoned quietly to Kitty, and they both stealthily left the room, while
Marchurst, with Brown, Jane, and Madame for an audience, and the nugget
for a text, delivered a short discourse.

Kitty put on a great straw hat, underneath which her piquant face
blushed and grew pink beneath the fond gaze of her lover as they left
the house together and strolled up to the Black Hill.

Black Hill no doubt at one time deserved its name, being then covered
with dark trees and representing a black appearance at a distance; but
at present, owing to the mines which have been worked there, the whole
place is covered with dazzling white clay, or mulloch, which now renders
the title singularly inappropriate. On the top of the hill there is a
kind of irregular gully or pass, which extends from one side of the
hill to the other, and was cut in the early days for mining purposes.
Anything more extraordinary can hardly be imagined than this chasm, for
the sides, which tower up on either side to the height of some fifty or
sixty feet, are all pure white, and at the top break into all sorts of
fantastic forms. The white surface of the rocks are all stained with
colours which alternate in shades of dark brown, bright red and delicate
pink. Great masses of rock have tumbled down on each side, often coming
so close together as to almost block up the path. Here and there in the
white walls can be seen the dark entrances of disused shafts; and one,
at the lowest level of the gully, pierces through the hill and comes
out on the other side. There is an old engine-house near the end of the
gully, with its red brick chimney standing up gaunt and silent beside
it, and the ugly tower of the winding gear adjacent. All the machinery
in the engine-house, with the huge wheels and intricate mechanism,
is silent now--for many years have elapsed since this old shaft was
abandoned by the Black Hill Gold Mining Company.

At the lower end of the pass there is an engine-house in full working
order, and a great plateau of slate-coloured mulloch runs out for some
yards, and then there is a steep sloping bank formed by the falling
earth. In the moonlight this wonderful white gully looks weird and
bizarre; and even as Vandeloup and Kitty stood at the top looking down
into its dusty depths in the bright sunshine, it looks fantastic and
picturesque.

Seated on the highest point of the hill, under the shadow of a great
rock, the two lovers had a wonderful view of Ballarat. Here and there
they could see the galvanized iron roofs of the houses gleaming like
silver in the sunlight from amid the thick foliage of the trees with
which the city is studded. Indeed, Ballarat might well be called the
City of Trees, for seen from the Black Hill it looks more like a huge
park with a sprinkling of houses in it than anything else. The green
foliage rolls over it like the waves of the ocean, and the houses rise
up like isolated habitations. Now and then a red brick building, or the
slender white spire of a church gave a touch of colour to the landscape,
and contrasted pleasantly with the bluish-white roofs and green trees.
Scattered all through the town were the huge mounds of earth marking
the mining-shafts of various colours, from dark brown to pure white, and
beside them, with the utmost regularity, were the skeleton towers of
the poppet heads, the tall red chimneys, and the squat, low forms of the
engine-houses. On the right, high up, could be seen the blue waters
of Lake Wendouree flashing like a mirror in the sunlight. The city was
completely encircled by the dark forests, which stretched far away,
having a reddish tinge over their trees, ending in a sharply defined
line against the clear sky; while, on the left arose Mount Warreneip
like an undulating mound and, further along, Mount Bunniyong, with the
same appearance.

All this wonderful panorama, however, was so familiar to Kitty and her
lover that they did not trouble themselves to look much at it; but the
girl sat down under the big rock, and Vandeloup flung himself lazily at
her feet.

'Bebe,' said Vandeloup, who had given her this pet name, 'how long is
this sort of life going to last?'

Kitty looked down at him with a vague feeling of terror at her heart.
She had never known any life but the simple one she was now leading, and
could not imagine it coming to an end.

'I'm getting tired of it,' said Vandeloup, lying back on the grass,
and, putting his hands under his head, stared idly at the blue sky.
'Unfortunately, human life is so short nowadays that we cannot afford to
waste a moment of it. I am not suited for a lotus-eating existence, and
I think I shall go to Melbourne.'

'And leave me?' cried Kitty, in dismay, never having contemplated such a
thing as likely to happen.

'That depends on yourself, Bebe,' said her lover, quickly rolling over
and looking steadily at her, with his chin resting on his hands; 'will
you come with me?'

'As your wife?' murmured Kitty, whose innocent mind never dreamt of any
other form of companionship.

Vandeloup turned away his face to conceal the sneering smile that crept
over it. His wife, indeed! as if he were going to encumber himself with
marriage before he had made a fortune, and even then it was questionable
as to whether he would surrender the freedom of bachelorhood for the
ties of matrimony.

'Of course,' he said, in a reassuring tone, still keeping his face
turned away, 'we will get married in Melbourne as soon as we arrive.'

'Why can't papa marry us,' pouted Kitty, in an aggrieved tone.

'My dear child,' said the Frenchman, getting on his knees and coming
close to her, 'in the first place, your father would not consent to the
match, as I am poor and unknown, and not by any means the man he would
choose for you; and in the second place, being a Catholic,'--here M.
Vandeloup looked duly religious--'I must be married by one of my own
priests.'

'Then why not in Ballarat?' objected Kitty, still unconvinced.

'Because your father would never consent,' he whispered, putting his arm
round her waist; 'we must run away quietly, and when we are married can
ask his pardon and,' with a sardonic sneer, 'his blessing.'

A delicious thrill passed through Kitty when she heard this. A real
elopement with a handsome lover--just like the heroines in the story
books. It was delightfully romantic, and yet there seemed to be
something wrong about it. She was like a timid bather, longing to
plunge into the water, yet hesitating through a vague fear. With a quick
catching of the breath she turned to Vandeloup, and saw him with his
burning scintillating eyes fastened on her face.

'Don't look like that,' she said, with a touch of virginal fear, pushing
him away, 'you frighten me.'

'Frighten you, Bebe?' he said, in a caressing tone; 'my heart's idol,
you are cruel to speak like that; you must come with me, for I cannot
and will not leave you behind.'

'When do you go?' asked Kitty, who was now trembling violently.

'Ah!' M. Vandeloup was puzzled what to say, as he had no very decided
plan of action. He had not sufficient money saved to justify him in
leaving the Pactolus--still there were always possibilities, and Fortune
was fond of playing wild pranks. At the same time there was nothing
tangible in view likely to make him rich, so, as these thoughts rapidly
passed through his mind, he resolved to temporize.

'I can't tell you, Bebe,' he said, in a caressing tone, smoothing her
curly hair. 'I want you to think over what I have said, and when I do
go, perhaps in a month or so, you will be ready to come with me. No,' he
said, as Kitty was about to answer, 'I don't want you to reply now, take
time to consider, little one,' and with a smile on his lips he bent over
and kissed her tenderly.

They sat silently together for some time, each intent on their own
thoughts, and then Vandeloup suddenly looked up.

'Will Madame stay to dinner with you, Bebe?' he asked.

Kitty nodded.

'She always does,' she answered; 'you will come too.'

Vandeloup shook his head.

'I am going down to Ballarat to the Wattle Tree Hotel to see my friend
Pierre,' he said, in a preoccupied manner, 'and will have something to
eat there. Then I will come up again about eight o'clock, in time to see
Madame off.'

'Aren't you going back with her?' asked Kitty, in surprise, as they rose
to their feet.

'No,' he replied, dusting his knees with his hand, 'I stay all night
in Ballarat, with Madame's kind permission, to see the theatre. Now,
good-bye at present, Bebe,' kissing her, 'I will be back at eight
o'clock, so you can excuse me to Madame till then.'

He ran gaily down the hill waving his hat, and Kitty stood looking after
him with pride in her heart. He was a lover any girl might have been
proud of, but Kitty would not have been so satisfied with him had she
known what his real thoughts were.

'Marry!' he said to himself, with a laugh, as he walked gaily along;
'hardly! When we get to Melbourne, my sweet Bebe, I will find some way
to keep you off that idea--and when we grow tired of one another, we can
separate without the trouble or expense of a divorce.'

And this heartless, cynical man of the world was the keeper into whose
hands innocent Kitty was about to commit the whole of her future life.

After all, the fabled Sirens have their equivalent in the male sex, and
Homer's description symbolizes a cruel truth.



CHAPTER X

FRIENDS IN COUNCIL


The Wattle Tree Hotel, to which Mr McIntosh had directed Pierre, was a
quiet little public-house in a quiet street. It was far away from the
main thoroughfares of the city, and a stranger had to go up any number
of quiet streets to get to it, and turn and twist round corners and down
narrow lanes until it became a perfect miracle how he ever found the
hotel at all.

To a casual spectator it would seem that a tavern so difficult of access
would not be very good for business, but Simon Twexby, the landlord,
knew better. It had its regular customers, who came there day after day,
and sat in the little back parlour and talked and chatted over their
drinks. The Wattle Tree was such a quiet haven of rest, and kept such
good liquor, that once a man discovered it he always came back again; so
Mr Twexby did a very comfortable trade.

Rumour said he had made a lot of money out of gold-mining, and that he
kept the hotel more for amusement than anything else; but, however this
might be, the trade of the Wattle Tree brought him in a very decent
income, and Mr Twexby could afford to take things easy--which he
certainly did.

Anyone going into the bar could see old Simon--a stolid, fat man, with
a sleepy-looking face, always in his shirt sleeves, and wearing a white
apron, sitting in a chair at the end, while his daughter, a sharp,
red-nosed damsel, who was thirty-five years of age, and confessed to
twenty-two, served out the drinks. Mrs Twexby had long ago departed this
life, leaving behind her the sharp, red-nosed damsel to be her father's
comfort. As a matter of fact, she was just the opposite, and Simon often
wished that his daughter had departed to a better world in company with
her mother. Thin, tight-laced, with a shrill voice and an acidulated
temper, Miss Twexby was still a spinster, and not even the fact of her
being an heiress could tempt any of the Ballarat youth to lead her to
the altar. Consequently Miss Twexby's temper was not a golden one, and
she ruled the hotel and its inmates--her father included--with a rod of
iron.

Mr Villiers was a frequent customer at the Wattle Tree, and was in the
back parlour drinking brandy and water and talking to old Twexby on the
day that Pierre arrived. The dumb man came into the bar out of the dusty
road, and, leaning over the counter, pushed a letter under Miss Twexby's
nose.

'Bills?' queried that damsel, sharply.

Pierre, of course, did not answer, but touched his lips with his hand to
indicate he was dumb. Miss Twexby, however, read the action another way.

'You want a drink,' she said, with a scornful toss of her head. 'Where's
your money?'

Pierre pointed out the letter, and although it was directed to her
father, Miss Twexby, who managed everything, opened it and found it was
from McIntosh, saying that the bearer, Pierre Lemaire, was to have a bed
for the night, meals, drinks, and whatever else he required, and that
he--McIntosh--would be responsible for the money. He furthermore added
that the bearer was dumb.

'Oh, so you're dumb, are you,' said Miss Twexby, folding up the letter
and looking complacently at Pierre. 'I wish there were a few more men
the same way; then, perhaps, we'd have less chat.'

This being undeniable, the fair Martha--for that was the name of the
Twexby heiress--without waiting for any assent, walking into the back
parlour, read the letter to her father, and waited instructions, for she
always referred to Simon as the head of the house, though as a matter of
fact she never did what she was told save when it tallied with her own
wishes.

'It will be all right, Martha, I suppose,' said Simon sleepily.

Martha asserted with decision that it would be all right, or she would
know the reason why; then marching out again to the bar, she drew a pot
of beer for Pierre--without asking him what he would have--and ordered
him to sit down and be quiet, which last remark was rather unnecessary,
considering that the man was dumb. Then she sat down behind her bar
and resumed her perusal of a novel called The Duke's Duchesses, or
The Milliner's Mystery,' which contained a ducal hero with bigamistic
proclivities, and a virtuous milliner whom the aforesaid duke
persecuted. All of which was very entertaining and improbable, and gave
Miss Twexby much pleasure, judging from the sympathetic sighs she was
heaving.

Meanwhile, Villiers having heard the name of Pierre Lemaire, and knowing
he was engaged in the Pactolus claim, came round to see him and try
to find out all about the nugget. Pierre was sulky at first, and sat
drinking his beer sullenly, with his old black hat drawn down so far
over his eyes that only his bushy black beard was visible, but Mr
Villiers' suavity, together with the present of half-a-crown, had a
marked effect on him. As he was dumb, Mr Villiers was somewhat perplexed
how to carry on a conversation with him, but he ultimately drew forth a
piece of paper, and sketched a rough presentation of a nugget thereon,
which he showed to Pierre. The Frenchman, however, did not comprehend
until Villiers produced a sovereign from his pocket, and pointed first
to the gold, and then to the drawing, upon which Pierre nodded his head
several times in order to show that he understood. Villiers then drew a
picture of the Pactolus claim, and asked Pierre in French if the nugget
was still there, as he showed him the sketch. Pierre shook his head,
and, taking the pencil in his hand, drew a rough representation of a
horse and cart, and put a square box in the latter to show the nugget
was on a journey.

'Hullo!' said Villiers to himself, 'it's not at her own house, and she's
driving somewhere with it, I wonder where to?'

Pierre--who not being able to write, was in the habit of drawing
pictures to express his thoughts--nudged his elbow and showed him a
sketch of a man in a box waving his arms.

'Auctioneer?' hazarded Mr Villiers, looking at this keenly. Pierre
stared at him blankly; his comprehension of English was none of the
best, so he did not know what auctioneer meant. However, he saw that
Villiers did not understand, so he rapidly sketched an altar with a
priest standing before it blessing the people.

'Oh, a priest, eh?--a minister?' said Villiers, nodding his head to show
he understood. 'She's taken the nugget to show it to a minister! Wonder
who it is?'

This was speedily answered by Pierre, who, throwing down the pencil and
paper, dragged him outside on to the road, and pointed to the white top
of the Black Hill. Mr Villiers instantly comprehended.

'Marchurst, by God!' he said in English, smiting his leg with his open
hand. 'Is Madame there now?' he added in French, turning to Pierre.

The dumb man nodded and slouched slowly back into the hotel. Villiers
stood out in the blazing sunshine, thinking.

'She's got the nugget with her in the trap,' he said to himself; 'and
she's taken it to show Marchurst. Well, she's sure to stop there to tea,
and won't start for home till about nine o'clock: it will be pretty dark
by then. She'll be by herself, and if I--' here he stopped and looked
round cautiously, and then, without another word, set off down the
street at a run.

The fact was, Mr Villiers had come to the conclusion that as his wife
would not give him money willingly, the best thing to be done would be
to take it by force, and accordingly he had made up his mind to rob her
of the nugget that night if possible. Of course there was a risk, for
he knew his wife was a determined woman; still, while she was driving in
the darkness down the hill, if he took her by surprise he would be able
to stun her with a blow and get possession of the nugget. Then he could
hide it in one of the old shafts of the Black Hill Company until he
required it. As to the possibility of his wife knowing him, there would
be no chance of that in the darkness, so he could escape any unpleasant
inquiries, then take the nugget to Melbourne and get it melted down
secretly. He would be able to make nearly twelve hundred pounds out
of it, so the game would certainly be worth the candle. Full of this
brilliant idea of making a good sum at one stroke, Mr Villiers went
home, had something to eat, and taking with him a good stout stick, the
nob of which was loaded with lead, he started for the Black Hill with
the intent of watching Marchurst's house until his wife left there, and
then following her down the hill and possessing himself of the nugget.

The afternoon wore drowsily along, and the great heat made everybody
inclined to sleep. Pierre had demanded by signs to be shown his bedroom,
and having been conducted thereto by a crushed-looking waiter, who
drifted aimlessly before him, threw himself on the bed and went fast
asleep.

Old Simon, in the dimly-lit back parlour, was already snoring, and only
Miss Twexby, amid the glitter of the glasses in the bar and the glare
of the sunshine through the open door, was wide awake. Customers came
in for foaming tankards of beer, and sometimes a little girl, with a jug
hidden under her apron, would appear, with a request that it might be
filled for 'mother', who was ironing. Indeed, the number of women who
were ironing that afternoon, and wanted to quench their thirst, was
something wonderful; but Miss Twexby seemed to know all about it as she
put a frothy head on each jug, and received the silver in exchange.
At last, however, even Martha the wide-awake was yielding to the
somniferous heat of the day when a young man entered the bar and made
her sit up with great alacrity, beaming all over her hard wooden face.

This was none other than M. Vandeloup, who had come down to see Pierre.
Dressed in flannels, with a blue scarf tied carelessly round his waist,
a blue necktie knotted loosely round his throat under the collar of his
shirt, and wearing a straw hat on his fair head, he looked wonderfully
cool and handsome, and as he leaned over the counter composedly smoking
a cigarette, Miss Twexby thought that the hero of her novel must have
stepped bodily out of the book. Gaston stared complacently at her while
he pulled at his fair moustache, and thought how horribly plain-looking
she was, and what a contrast to his charming Bebe.

'I'll take something cool to drink,' he said, with a yawn, 'and also a
chair, if you have no objection,' suiting the action to the word; 'whew!
how warm it is.'

'What would you like to drink, sir?' asked the fair Martha, putting on
her brightest smile, which seemed rather out of place on her features;
'brandy and soda?'

'Thank you, I'll have a lemon squash if you will kindly make me one,' he
said, carelessly, and as Martha flew to obey his order, he added, 'you
might put a little curacoa in it.'

'It's very hot, ain't it,' observed Miss Twexby, affably, as she cut up
the lemon; 'par's gone to sleep in the other room,' jerking her head in
the direction of the parlour, 'but Mr Villiers went out in all the heat,
and it ain't no wonder if he gets a sunstroke.'

'Oh, was Mr Villiers here?' asked Gaston, idly, not that he cared much
about that gentleman's movements, but merely for something to say.

'Lor, yes, sir,' giggled Martha, 'he's one of our regulars, sir.'

'I can understand that, Mademoiselle,' said Vandeloup, bowing as he took
the drink from her hand.

Miss Twexby giggled again, and her nose grew a shade redder at the
pleasure of being bantered by this handsome young man.

'You're a furriner,' she said, shortly; 'I knew you were,' she went on
triumphantly as he nodded, 'you talk well enough, but there's something
wrong about the way you pronounces your words.'

Vandeloup hardly thought Miss Twexby a mistress of Queen's English, but
he did not attempt to contradict her.

'I must get you to give me a few lessons,' he replied, gallantly,
setting down the empty glass; 'and what has Mr Villiers gone out into
the heat for?'

'It's more nor I can tell,' said Martha, emphatically, nodding her head
till the short curls dangling over her ears vibrated as if they were
made of wire. 'He spoke to the dumb man and drew pictures for him, and
then off he goes.'

The dumb man! Gaston pricked up his ears at this, and, wondering what
Villiers wanted to talk to Pierre about, he determined to find out.

'That dumb man is one of our miners from the Pactolus,' he said,
lighting another cigarette; 'I wish to speak to him--has he gone out
also?'

'No, he ain't,' returned Miss Twexby, decisively; 'he's gone to lie
down; d'ye want to see him; I'll send for him--' with her hand on the
bell-rope.

'No, thank you,' said Vandeloup, stopping her, 'I'll go up to his room
if you will show me the way.'

'Oh, I don't mind,' said Martha, preparing to leave the bar, but first
ringing the bell so that the crushed-looking waiter might come and
attend to possible customers; 'he's on the ground floor, and there ain't
no stairs to climb--now what are you looking at, sir?' with another
gratified giggle, as she caught Vandeloup staring at her.

But he was not looking at her somewhat mature charms, but at a bunch of
pale blue flowers, among which were some white blossoms she wore in the
front of her dress.

'What are these?' he asked, touching the white blossoms lightly with his
finger.

'I do declare it's that nasty hemlock!' said Martha, in surprise,
pulling the white flowers out of the bunch; 'and I never knew it was
there. Pah!' and she threw the blossom down with a gesture of disgust.
'How they smell!'

Gaston picked up one of the flowers, and crushed it between his fingers,
upon which it gave out a peculiar mousy odour eminently disagreeable. It
was hemlock sure enough, and he wondered how such a plant had come into
Australia.

'Does it grow in your garden?' he asked Martha.

That damsel intimated it did, and offered to show him the plant, so that
he could believe his own eyes.

Vandeloup assented eagerly, and they were soon in the flower garden at
the back of the house, which was blazing with vivid colours, in the hot
glare of the sunshine.

There you are,' said Miss Twexby, pointing to a corner of the garden
near the fence where the plant was growing; 'par brought a lot of seeds
from home, and that beastly thing got mixed up with them. Par keeps it
growing, though, 'cause no one else has got it. It's quite a curiosity.'

Vandeloup bent down and examined the plant, with its large, round,
smooth, purple-spotted stem--its smooth, shining green leaves, and the
tiny white flowers with their disagreeable odour.

'Yes, it is hemlock,' he said, half to himself; 'I did not know it could
be grown here. Some day, Mademoiselle,' he said, turning to Miss Twexby
and walking back to the house with her, 'I will ask you to let me have
some of the roots of that plant to make an experiment with.'

'As much as you like,' said the fair Martha, amiably; 'it's a nasty
smelling thing. What are you going to make out of it?'

'Nothing particular,' returned Vandeloup, with a yawn, as they entered
the house and stopped at the door of Pierre's room. 'I'm a bit of a
chemist, and amuse myself with these things.'

'You are clever,' observed Martha, admiringly; 'but here's that man's
room--we didn't give him the best'--apologetically--'as miners are so
rough.'

'Mademoiselle,' said Vandeloup, eagerly, as she turned to go, 'I see
there are a few blossoms of hemlock left in your flower there,' touching
it with his finger; 'will you give them to me?'

Martha Twexby stared; surely this was the long-expected come at
last--she had secured a lover; and such a lover--handsome, young, and
gallant,--the very hero of her dreams. She almost fainted in delighted
surprise, and unfastening the flowers with trembling fingers, gave them
to Gaston. He placed them in a button-hole of his flannel coat, then
before she could scream, or even draw back in time, this audacious young
man put his arm round her and kissed her virginal lips. Miss Twexby was
so taken by surprise, that she could offer no resistance, and by the
time she had recovered herself, Gaston had disappeared into Pierre's
room and closed the door after him.

'Well,' she said to herself, as she returned to the bar, 'if that isn't
a case of love at first sight, my name ain't Martha Twexby,' and she sat
down in the bar with her nerves all of a flutter, as she afterwards told
a female friend who dropped in sometimes for a friendly cup of tea.

Gaston closed the door after him, and found himself in a moderately
large room, with one window looking on to the garden, and having a
dressing-table with a mirror in front of it. There were two beds, one on
each side, and on the farthest of these Pierre was sleeping heavily, not
even Gaston's entrance having roused him. Going over to him, Vandeloup
touched him slightly, and with a spring the dumb man sat up in bed as if
he expected to be arrested, and was all on the alert to escape.

'It's only I, my friend,' said Gaston, in French, crossing over to the
other bed and sitting on it. 'Come here; I wish to speak to you.'

Pierre rose from his sleeping place, and, stumbling across the room,
stood before Gaston with downcast eyes, his shaggy hair all tossed and
tumbled by the contact with the pillow. Gaston himself coolly relit his
cigarette, which had gone out, threw his straw hat on the bed, and then,
curling one leg inside the other, looked long and keenly at Pierre.

'You saw Madame's husband to-day?' he said sharply, still eyeing the
slouching figure before him, that seemed so restless under his steady
gaze.

Pierre nodded and shuffled his large feet.

'Did he want to know about his wife?'

Another nod.

'I thought so; and about the new nugget also, I presume?'

Still another nod.

'Humph,' thoughtfully. 'He'd like to get a share of it, I've no doubt.'

The dumb man nodded violently; then, crossing over to his own bed,
he placed the pillow in the centre of it, and falling on his knees,
imitated the action of miners in working at the wash. Then he arose to
his feet and pointed to the pillow.

'I see,' said M. Vandeloup, who had been watching this pantomime with
considerable interest; 'that pillow is the nugget of which our friend
wants a share.'

Pierre assented; then, snatching up the pillow, he ran with it to the
end of the room.

'Oh,' said Gaston, after a moment's thought, 'so he's going to run away
with it. A very good idea; but how does he propose to get it?'

Pierre dropped his pillow and pointed in the direction of the Black
Hill.

'Does he know it's up there?' asked Vandeloup; 'you told him, I
suppose?' As Pierre nodded, 'Humph! I think I can see what Mr Villiers
intends to do--rob his wife as she goes home tonight.'

Pierre nodded in a half doubtful manner.

'You're not quite sure,' interrupted M. Vandeloup, 'but I am. He won't
stop at anything to get money. You stay all night in town?'

The dumb man assented.

'So do I,' replied Vandeloup; 'it's a happy coincidence, because I see
a chance of our getting that nugget.' Pierre's dull eyes brightened, and
he rubbed his hands together in a pleased manner.

'Sit down,' said Vandeloup, in a peremptory tone, pointing to the floor.
'I wish to tell you what I think.'

Pierre obediently dropped on to the floor, where he squatted like a huge
misshapen toad, while Vandeloup, after going to the door to see that
it was closed, returned to the bed, sat down again, and, having lighted
another cigarette, began to speak. All this precaution was somewhat
needless, as he was talking rapidly in French, but then M. Vandeloup
knew that walls have ears and possibly might understand foreign
languages.

'I need hardly remind you,' said Vandeloup, in a pleasant voice, 'that
when we landed in Australia I told you that there was war between
ourselves and society, and that, at any cost, we must try to make money;
so far, we have only been able to earn an honest livelihood--a way of
getting rich which you must admit is remarkably slow. Here, however, is
a chance of making, if not a fortune, at least a good sum of money at
one stroke. This M. Villiers is going to rob his wife, and his plan
will no doubt be this: he will lie in wait for her, and when she drives
slowly down the hill, he will spring on to the trap and perhaps attempt
to kill her; at all events, he will seize the box containing the nugget,
and try to make off with it. How he intends to manage it I cannot tell
you--it must be left to the chapter of accidents; but,' in a lower
voice, bending forward, 'when he does get the nugget we must obtain it
from him.'

Pierre looked up and drew his hand across his throat.

'Not necessarily,' returned Vandeloup, coolly; 'I know your adage, "dead
men tell no tales," but it is a mistake--they do, and to kill him is
dangerous. No, if we stun him we can go off with the nugget, and then
make our way to Melbourne, where we can get rid of it quietly. As
to Madame Midas, if her husband allows her to live--which I think is
unlikely--I will make our excuses to her for leaving the mine. Now, I'm
going up to M. Marchurst's house, so you can meet me at the top of the
hill, at eight o'clock tonight. Madame will probably start at half-past
eight or nine, so that will give us plenty of time to see what M.
Villiers is going to do.'

They both rose to their feet. Then Vandeloup put on his hat, and, going
to the glass, arranged his tie in as cool and nonchalant a manner as
if he had been merely planning the details for a picnic instead of a
possible crime. While admiring himself in the glass he caught sight of
the bunch of flowers given to him by Miss Twexby, and, taking them from
his coat, he turned round to Pierre, who stood watching him in his usual
sullen manner.

'Do you see these?' he asked, touching the white blossoms with the
cigarette he held between his fingers.

Pierre intimated that he did.

'From the plant of these, my friend,' said Vandeloup, looking at them
critically, 'I can prepare a vegetable poison as deadly as any of Caesar
Borgia's. It is a powerful narcotic, and leaves hardly any trace. Having
been a medical student, you know,' he went on, conversationally, 'I made
quite a study of toxicology, and the juice of this plant,' touching the
white flower, 'has done me good service, although it was the cause of my
exile to New Caledonia. Well,' with a shrug of the shoulders as he
put the flowers back in his coat, 'it is always something to have in
reserve; I did not know that I could get this plant here, my friend. But
now that I have I will prepare a little of this poison,--it will always
be useful in emergencies.'

Pierre looked steadily at the young man, and then slipping his hand
behind his back he drew forth from the waistband of his trousers a
long, sharp, cruel-looking knife, which for safety had a leather sheath.
Drawing this off, the dumb man ran his thumb along the keen edge, and
held the knife out towards Vandeloup, who refused it with a cynical
smile.

'You don't believe in this, I can see,' he said, touching the dainty
bunch of flowers as Pierre put the knife in its sheath again and
returned it to its hiding-place. 'I'm afraid your ideas are still
crude--you believe in the good old-fashioned style of blood-letting.
Quite a mistake, I assure you; poison is much more artistic and neat
in its work, and to my mind involves less risk. You see, my Pierre,' he
continued, lazily watching the blue wreaths of smoke from his cigarette
curl round his head, 'crime must improve with civilization; and since
the Cain and Abel epoch we have refined the art of murder in a most
wonderful manner--decidedly we are becoming more civilized; and now, my
friend,' in a kind tone, laying his slender white hand on the shoulder
of the dumb man, 'you must really take a little rest, for I have
no doubt but what you will need all your strength tonight should M.
Villiers prove obstinate. Of course,' with a shrug, 'if he does not
succeed in getting the nugget, our time will be simply wasted, and
then,' with a gay smile, touching the flowers, 'I will see what I can do
in the artistic line.'

Pierre lay down again on the bed, and turning his face to the wall fell
fast asleep, while M. Vandeloup, humming a merry tune, walked gaily out
of the room to the bar, and asked Miss Twexby for another drink.

'Brandy and soda this time, please,' he said, lazily lighting another
cigarette; 'this heat is so enervating, and I'm going to walk up to
Black Hill. By the way, Mademoiselle,' he went on, as she opened the
soda water, 'as I see there are two beds in my friend's room I will stay
here all night.'

'You shall have the best room,' said Martha, decisively, as she handed
him the brandy and soda.

'You are too kind,' replied M. Vandeloup, coolly, as he took the drink
from her, 'but I prefer to stay with my silent friend. He was one of the
sailors in the ship when I was wrecked, as you have no doubt heard, and
looks upon me as a sort of fetish.'

Miss Twexby knew all about the wreck, and thought it was beautiful that
he should condescend to be so friendly with a common sailor. Vandeloup
received all her speeches with a polite smile, then set down his empty
glass and prepared to leave.

'Mademoiselle,' he said, touching the flowers, 'you see I still have
them--they will remind me of you,' and raising his hat he strolled idly
out of the hotel, and went off in the direction of the Black Hill.

Miss Twexby ran to the door, and shading her eyes with her hands from
the blinding glare of the sun, she watched him lounging along the
street, tall, slender, and handsome.

'He's just lovely,' she said to herself, as she returned to the bar 'but
his eyes are so wicked; I don't think he's a good young man.'

What would she have said if she had heard the conversation in the
bedroom?



CHAPTER XI

THEODORE WOPPLES, ACTOR


Mr Villiers walked in a leisurely manner along the lower part of the
town, with the intent of going up to his destination through the old
mining gully. He took this route for two reasons--first, because the
afternoon was hot, and it was easier climbing up that way than going
by the ordinary road; and, second, on his journey through the chasm he
would be able to mark some place where he could hide the nugget. With
his stick under his arm, Mr Villiers trudged merrily along in a happy
humour, as if he was bent on pleasure instead of robbery. And after
all, as he said to himself, it could not be called a genuine robbery,
as everything belonging to his wife was his by right of the marriage
service, and he was only going to have his own again. With this
comfortable thought he climbed slowly up the broken tortuous path which
led to the Black Hill, and every now and then would pause to rest, and
admire the view.

It was now nearly six o'clock, and the sun was sinking amid a blaze of
splendour. The whole of the western sky was a sea of shimmering gold,
and this, intensified near the horizon to almost blinding brightness,
faded off towards the zenith of the sky into a delicate green, and
thence melted imperceptibly into a cold blue.

Villiers, however, being of the earth, earthy, could not be troubled
looking very long at such a common-place sight as a sunset; the same
thing occurred every evening, and he had more important things to do
than to waste his time gratifying his artistic eye. Arriving on the
plateau of earth just in front of the gully, he was soon entering the
narrow gorge, and tramped steadily along in deep thought, with bent
head and wrinkled brows. The way being narrow, and Villiers being
preoccupied, it was not surprising that as a man was coming down in
the opposite direction, also preoccupied, they should run against one
another. When this took place it gave Mr Villiers rather a start, as it
suggested a possible witness to the deed he contemplated, a thing for
which he was by no means anxious.

'Really, sir,' said the stranger, in a rich, rolling voice, and in a
dignified tone, 'I think you might look where you are going. From what
I saw of you, your eyes were not fixed on the stars, and thus to cause
your unwatched feet to stumble; in fact,' said the speaker, looking up
to the sky, 'I see no stars whereon you could fix your gaze.'

This somewhat strange mode of remonstrance was delivered in a solemn
manner, with appropriate gestures, and tickled Mr Villiers so much that
he leaned up against a great rock abutting on the path, and laughed long
and loudly.

'That is right, sir,' said the stranger, approvingly; 'laughter is
to the soul what food is to the body. I think, sir,' in a Johnsonian
manner, 'the thought is a happy one.'

Villiers assented with a nod, and examined the speaker attentively.
He was a man of medium height, rather portly than otherwise, with a
clean-shaved face, clearly-cut features, and two merry grey eyes, which
twinkled like stars as they rested on Villiers. His hair was greyish,
and inclined to curl, but could not follow its natural inclination owing
to the unsparing use of the barber's shears. He wore a coat and trousers
of white flannel, but no waistcoat; canvas shoes were on his feet, and
a juvenile straw hat was perched on his iron-grey hair, the rim of
which encircled his head like a halo of glory. He had small, well-shaped
hands, one of which grasped a light cane, and the other a white silk
pocket handkerchief, with which he frequently wiped his brow. He seemed
very hot, and, leaning on the opposite side of the path against a rock,
fanned himself first with his handkerchief and then with his hat, all
the time looking at Mr Villiers with a beaming smile. At last he took a
silver-mounted flask from his pocket and offered it to Villiers, with a
pleasant bow.

'It's very hot, you know,' he said, in his rich voice, as Villiers
accepted the flask.

'What, this?' asked Villiers, indicating the flask, as he slowly
unscrewed the top.

'No; the day, my boy, the day. Ha! ha! ha!' said the lively stranger,
going off into fits of laughter, which vibrated like small thunder amid
the high rocks surrounding them. 'Good line for a comedy, I think. Ha!
ha!--gad, I'll make a note of it,' and diving into one of the pockets of
his coat, he produced therefrom an old letter, on the back of which he
inscribed the witticism with the stump of a pencil.

Meanwhile Villiers, thinking the flask contained brandy, or at least
whisky, took a long drink of it, but found to his horror it was merely a
weak solution of sherry and water.

'Oh, my poor stomach,' he gasped, taking the flask from his lips.

'Colic?' inquired the stranger with a pleasant smile, as he put back the
letter and pencil, 'hot water fomentations are what you need. Wonderful
cure. Will bring you to life again though you were at your last gasp.
Ha!' struck with a sudden idea, '"His Last Gasp", good title for a
melodrama--mustn't forget that,' and out came the letter and the pencil
again.

Mr Villiers explained in a somewhat gruff tone that it was not colic,
but that his medical attendant allowed him to drink nothing but whisky.

'To be taken twenty times a day, I presume,' observed the stranger, with
a wink; 'no offence meant, sir,' as Villiers showed a disposition to
resent this, 'merely a repartee. Good for a comedy, I fancy; what do you
think?'

'I think,' said Mr Villiers, handing him back the flask, 'that you're
very eccentric.'

'Eccentric?' replied the other, in an airy tone, 'not at all, sir. I'm
merely a civilized being with the veneer off. I am not hidden under an
artificial coat of manner. No, I laugh--ha! ha! I skip, ha! ha!' with a
light trip on one foot. 'I cry,' in a dismal tone. 'In fact, I am a man
in his natural state--civilized sufficiently, but not over civilized.'

'What's your name?' asked Mr Villiers, wondering whether the portly
gentleman was mad.

For reply the stranger dived into another pocket, and, bringing to light
a long bill-poster, held it up before Mr Villiers.

'Read! mark! and inwardly digest!' he said in a muffled tone behind the
bill.

This document set forth in red, black, and blue letters, that the
celebrated Wopples Family, consisting of twelve star artistes, were
now in Ballarat, and would that night appear at the Academy of Music in
their new and original farcical comedy, called 'The Cruet-Stand'. Act I:
Pepper! Act II: Mustard! Act III: Vinegar.

'You, then,' said Villiers, after he had perused this document, 'are Mr
Wopples?'

'Theodore Wopples, at your service,' said that gentleman, rolling up the
bill, then putting it into his pocket, he produced therefrom a batch of
tickets. 'One of these,' handing a ticket to Villiers, 'will admit you
to the stalls tonight, where you will see myself and the children in
"The Cruet-Stand".'

'Rather a peculiar title, isn't it?' said Villiers, taking the ticket.

'The play is still more peculiar, sir,' replied Mr Wopples, restoring
the bulky packet of tickets to his pocket, 'dealing as it does with
the adventures of a youth who hides his father's will in a cruet stand,
which is afterwards annexed by a comic bailiff.'

'But isn't it rather a curious thing to hide a will in a cruet stand?'
asked Villiers, smiling at the oddity of the idea.

'Therein, sir, lies the peculiarity of the play,' said Mr Wopples,
grandly. 'Of course the characters find out in Act I that the will is
in the cruet stand; in Act II, while pursuing it, they get mixed up
with the bailiff's mother-in-law; and in Act III,' finished Mr Wopples,
exultingly, 'they run it to earth in a pawnshop. Oh, I assure you it is
a most original play.'

'Very,' assented the other, dryly; 'the author must be a man of
genius--who wrote it?'

'Its a translation from the German, sir,' said Mr Wopples, taking a
drink of sherry and water, 'and was originally produced in London as
"The Pickle Bottle", the will being hidden with the family onions. In
Melbourne it was the success of the year under the same title. I,' with
an air of genius, 'called it "The Cruet Stand".'

'Then how did you get a hold of it,' asked Villiers.

'My wife, sir,' said the actor, rolling out the words in his deep voice.
'A wonderful woman, sir; paid a visit to Melbourne, and there, sir,
seated at the back of the pit between a coal-heaver and an apple-woman,
she copied the whole thing down.'

'But isn't that rather mean?'

'Certainly not,' retorted Wopples, haughtily; 'the opulent Melbourne
managers refuse to let me have their new pieces, so I have to take the
law into my own hands. I'll get all the latest London successes in the
same way. We play "Ours" under the title of "The Hero's Return, or the
Soldier's Bride": we have done the "Silver King" as "The Living Dead",
which was an immense success.'

Villiers thought that under such a contradictory title it would rather
pique the curiosity of the public.

'To-morrow night,' pursued Mr Wopples, 'we act "Called Back", but it is
billed as "The Blind Detective"; thus,' said the actor, with virtuous
scorn, 'do we evade the grasping avarice of the Melbourne managers, who
would make us pay fees for them.'

'By the way,' said Mr Wopples, breaking off suddenly in a light and airy
manner, 'as I came down here I saw a lovely girl--a veritable fairy,
sir--with golden hair, and a bright smile that haunts me still. I
exchanged a few remarks with her regarding the beauty of the day, and
thus allegorically referred to the beauty of herself--a charming flight
of fancy, I think, sir.'

'It must have been Kitty Marchurst,' said Villiers, not attending to the
latter portion of Mr Wopples' remarks.

'Ah, indeed,' said Mr Wopples, lightly, 'how beautiful is the name of
Kitty; it suggests poetry immediately--for instance:

Kitty, ah Kitty, You are so pretty, Charming and witty, That 'twere a
pity I sung not this ditty In praise of my Kitty.

On the spur of the moment, sir, I assure you; does it not remind you of
Herrick?'

Mr Villiers bluntly said it did not.

'Ah! perhaps it's more like Shakespeare?' observed the actor, quite
unabashed. 'You think so?'

Mr Villiers was doubtful, and displayed such anxiety to get away that Mr
Wopples held out his hand to say goodbye.

'You'll excuse me, I know,' said Mr Wopples, in an apologetic tone,
'but the show commences at eight, and it is now half-past six. I trust I
shall see you tonight.'

'It's very kind of you to give me this ticket,' said Villiers, in whom
the gentlemanly instinct still survived.

'Not at all; not at all,' retorted Mr Wopples, with a wink. 'Business,
my boy, business. Always have a good house first night, so must go into
the highways and byways for an audience. Ha! Biblical illustration, you
see;' and with a gracious wave of his hand he skipped lightly down the
path and disappeared from sight.

It was now getting dark; so Mr Villiers went on his own way, and having
selected a mining shaft where he could hide the nugget, he climbed up to
the top of the hill, and lying down under the shadow of a rock where
he could get a good view of Marchurst's house, he waited patiently till
such time as his wife would start for home.

'I'll pay you out for all you've done,' he muttered to himself, as he
lay curled up in the black shadow like a noisome reptile. 'Tit for tat,
my lady!-tit for tat!'



CHAPTER XII

HIGHWAY ROBBERY


Dinner at Mr Marchurst's house was not a particularly exhilarating
affair. As a matter of fact, though dignified with the name of dinner,
it was nothing more than one of those mixed meals known as high tea.
Vandeloup knew this, and, having a strong aversion to the miscellaneous
collection of victuals which appeared on Mr Marchurst's table, he dined
at Craig's Hotel, where he had a nice little dinner, and drank a pint
bottle of champagne in order to thoroughly enjoy himself. Madame Midas
also had a dislike to tea-dinners, but, being a guest, of course had
to take what was going; and she, Kitty, and Mr Marchurst, were the only
people present at the festive board. At last Mr Marchurst finished and
delivered a long address of thanks to Heaven for the good food they had
enjoyed, which good food, being heavy and badly cooked, was warranted
to give them all indigestion and turn their praying to cursing. In fact,
what with strong tea, hurried meals, and no exercise, Mr Marchurst used
to pass an awful time with the nightmare, and although he was accustomed
to look upon nightmares as visions, they were due more to dyspepsia than
inspiration.

After dinner Madame sat and talked with Marchurst, but Kitty went
outside into the warm darkness of the summer night, and tried to pierce
the gloom to see if her lover was coming. She was rewarded, for M.
Vandeloup came up about half-past eight o'clock, having met Pierre as
arranged. Pierre had found out Villiers in his hiding-place, and was
watching him while Villiers watched the house. Being, therefore, quite
easy in his mind that things were going smoothly, Vandeloup came up to
the porch where Kitty was eagerly waiting for him, and taking her in his
arms kissed her tenderly. Then, after assuring himself that Madame was
safe with Marchurst, he put his arm round Kitty's waist, and they walked
up and down the path with the warm wind blowing in their faces, and the
perfume of the wattle blossoms permeating the drowsy air. And yet while
he was walking up and down, talking lover-like nonsense to the pretty
girl by his side, Vandeloup knew that Villiers was watching the house
far off, with evil eyes, and he also knew that Pierre was watching
Villiers with all the insatiable desire of a wild beast for blood. The
moon rose, a great shield of silver, and all the ground was strewn with
the aerial shadows of the trees. The wind sighed through the branches
of the wattles, and made their golden blossoms tremble in the moonlight,
while hand in hand the lovers strolled down the path or over the short
dry grass. Far away in the distance they heard a woman singing, and the
high sweet voice floated softly towards them through the clear air.

Suddenly they heard the noise of a chair being pushed back inside
the house, and knew that Madame was getting ready to go. They moved
simultaneously towards the door, but in the porch Gaston paused for a
moment, and caught Kitty by the arm.

'Bebe,' he whispered softly, 'when Madame is gone I am going down the
hill to Ballarat, so you will walk with me a little way, will you not?'

Of course, Kitty was only too delighted at being asked to do so,
and readily consented, then ran quickly into the house, followed by
Vandeloup.

'You here?' cried Madame, in surprise, pausing for a moment in the act
of putting on her bonnet. 'Why are you not at the theatre?'

'I am going, Madame,' replied Gaston, calmly, 'but I thought I would
come up in order to assist you to put the nugget in the trap.'

'Oh, Mr Marchurst would have done that,' said Madame, much gratified
at Vandeloup's attention. 'I'm sorry you should miss your evening's
pleasure for that.'

'Ah, Madame, I do but exchange a lesser pleasure for a greater one,'
said the gallant Frenchman, with a pleasant smile; 'but are you sure you
will not want me to drive you home?'

'Not at all,' said Madame, as they all went outside; 'I am quite safe.'

'Still, with this,' said Mr Marchurst, bringing up the rear, with the
nugget now safely placed in its wooden box, 'you might be robbed.'

'Not I,' replied Mrs Villiers, brightly, as the horse and trap were
brought round to the gate by Brown. 'No one knows I've got it in the
trap, and, besides, no one can catch up with Rory when he once starts.'

Marchurst put the nugget under the seat of the trap, but Madame was
afraid it might slip out by some chance, so she put the box containing
it in front, and then her feet on the box, so that it was absolutely
impossible that it could get lost without her knowing. Then saying
goodbye to everyone, and telling M. Vandeloup to be out at the Pactolus
before noon the next day, she gathered up the reins and drove slowly
down the hill, much to the delight of Mr Villiers, who was getting tired
of waiting. Kitty and Vandeloup strolled off in the moonlight, while
Marchurst went back to the house.

Villiers arose from his hiding-place, and looked up savagely at the
serene moon, which was giving far too much light for his scheme to
succeed. Fortunately, however, he saw a great black cloud rapidly
advancing which threatened to hide the moon; so he set off down the hill
at a run in order to catch his wife at a nasty part of the road some
distance down, where she would be compelled to go slowly, and thus give
him a chance to spring on the trap and take her by surprise. But quick
as he was, Pierre was quicker, and both Vandeloup and Kitty could see
the two black figures running rapidly along in the moonlight.

'Who are those?' asked Kitty, with a sudden start. 'Are they going after
Madame?'

'Little goose,' whispered her lover, with a laugh; 'if they are they
will never catch up to that horse. It's all right, Bebe,' with a
reassuring smile, seeing that Kitty still looked somewhat alarmed, 'they
are only some miners out on a drunken frolic.'

Thus pacified, Kitty laughed gaily, and they wandered along in the
moonlight, talking all the fond and foolish nonsense they could think
of.

Meanwhile the great black cloud had completely hidden the moon, and the
whole landscape was quite dark. This annoyed Madame, as, depending on
the moonlight, the lamps of the trap were not lighted, and she could not
see in the darkness how to drive down a very awkward bit of road that
she was now on.

It was very steep, and there was a high bank on one side, while on
the other there was a fall of about ten feet. She felt annoyed at the
darkness, but on looking up saw that the cloud would soon pass, so drove
on slowly quite content. Unluckily she did not see the figure on the
high bank which ran along stealthily beside her, and while turning a
corner, Mr Villiers--for it was he--dropped suddenly from the bank on to
the trap, and caught her by the throat.

'My God!' cried the unfortunate woman, taken by surprise, and,
involuntarily tightening the reins, the horse stopped--'who are you?'

Villiers never said a word, but tightened his grasp on her throat and
shortened his stick to give her a blow on the head. Fortunately, Madame
Midas saw his intention, and managed to wrench herself free, so the blow
aimed at her only slightly touched her, otherwise it would have killed
her.

As it was, however, she fell forward half stunned, and Villiers,
hurriedly dropping his stick, bent down and seized the box which he felt
under his feet and intuitively guessed contained the nugget.

With a cry of triumph he hurled it out on to the road, and sprang out
after it; but the cry woke his wife from the semi-stupor into which she
had fallen.

Her head felt dizzy and heavy from the blow, but still she had her
senses about her, and the moon bursting out from behind a cloud,
rendered the night as clear as day.

Villiers had picked up the box, and was standing on the edge of the
bank, just about to leave. The unhappy woman recognised her husband, and
uttered a cry.

'You! you!' she shrieked, wildly, 'coward! dastard! Give me back that
nugget!' leaning out of the trap in her eagerness.

'I'll see you damned first,' retorted Villiers, who, now that he was
recognised, was utterly reckless as to the result. 'We're quits now, my
lady,' and he turned to go.

Maddened with anger and disgust, his wife snatched up the stick he had
dropped, and struck him on the head as he took a step forward. With a
stifled cry he staggered and fell over the embankment, still clutching
the box in his arms. Madame let the stick fall, and fell back fainting
on the seat of the trap, while the horse, startled by the noise, tore
down the road at a mad gallop.

Madame Midas lay in a dead faint for some time, and when she came to
herself she was still in the trap, and Rory was calmly trotting along
the road home. At the foot of the hill, the horse, knowing every inch
of the way, had settled down into his steady trot for the Pactolus, but
when Madame grasped the situation, she marvelled to herself how she had
escaped being dashed to pieces in that mad gallop down the Black Hill.

Her head felt painful from the effects of the blow she had received, but
her one thought was to get home to Archie and Selina, so gathering up
the reins she sent Rory along as quickly as she could. When she drove up
to the gate Archie and Selina were both out to receive her, and when the
former went to lift her off the trap, he gave a cry of horror at seeing
her dishevelled appearance and the blood on her face.

'God save us!' he cried, lifting her down; 'what's come t' ye, and
where's the nugget?' seeing it was not in the trap.

'Lost!' she said, in a stupor, feeling her head swimming, 'but there's
worse.'

'Worse?' echoed Selina and Archie, who were both standing looking
terrified at one another.

'Yes,' said Mrs Villiers, in a hollow whisper, leaning forward and
grasping Archie's coat, 'I've killed my husband,' and without another
word, she fell fainting to the ground.

At the same time Vandeloup and Pierre walked into the bar at the Wattle
Tree Hotel, and each had a glass of brandy, after which Pierre went to
his bed, and Vandeloup, humming a gay song, turned on his heel and went
to the theatre.



CHAPTER XIII

A GLIMPSE OF BOHEMIA


'AH!' says Thackeray, pathetically, 'Prague is a pleasant city, but we
all lose our way to it late in life.'

The Wopples family were true Bohemians, and had not yet lost their way
to the pleasant city. They accepted good and bad fortune with wonderful
equanimity, and if their pockets were empty one day, there was always
a possibility of their being full the next. When this was the case they
generally celebrated the event by a little supper, and as their present
season in Ballarat bid fair to be a successful one, Mr Theodore Wopples
determined to have a convivial evening after the performance was over.

That the Wopples family were favourites with the Ballarat folk was amply
seen by the crowded house which assembled to see 'The Cruet Stand'. The
audience were very impatient for the curtain to rise, as they did not
appreciate the overture, which consisted of airs from 'La Mascotte',
adapted for the violin and piano by Mr Handel Wopples, who was the
musical genius of the family, and sat in the conductor's seat, playing
the violin and conducting the orchestra of one, which on this occasion
was Miss Jemima Wopples, who presided at the piano. The Wopples family
consisted of twelve star artistes, beginning with Mr Theodore Wopples,
aged fifty, and ending with Master Sheridan Wopples, aged ten, who did
the servants' characters, delivered letters, formed the background in
tableaux, and made himself generally useful. As the cast of the comedy
was only eight, two of the family acted as the orchestra, and the
remaining two took money at the door. When their duties in this respect
were over for the night, they went into the pit to lead the applause.

At last the orchestra finished, and the curtain drew up, displaying an
ancient house belonging to a decayed family. The young Squire, present
head of the decayed family (Mr Cibber Wopples), is fighting with
his dishonest steward (admirably acted by Mr Dogbery Wopples), whose
daughter he wants to marry. The dishonest steward, during Act I, without
any apparent reason, is struck with remorse, and making his will in
favour of the Squire, departs to America, but afterwards appears in the
last act as someone else. Leaving his will on the drawing-room table,
as he naturally would, it is seized by an Eton boy (Master Sheridan
Wopples), who hides it, for some unexplained reason, in the cruet-stand,
being the last piece of family plate remaining to the decayed family.
This is seized by a comic bailiff (Mr Theodore Wopples), who takes it to
his home; and the decayed family, finding out about the will, start to
chase the bailiff and recover the stolen property from him. This brought
the play on to Act II, which consisted mainly of situations arising out
of the indiscriminate use of doors and windows for entrances and exits.
The bailiff's mother-in-law (Mrs Wopples) appears in this act, and,
being in want of a new dress, takes the cruet stand to her 'uncle' and
pawns it; so Act II ends with a general onslaught of the decayed family
on Mrs Wopples.

Then the orchestra played the 'Wopples' Waltz', dedicated to Mr Theodore
Wopples by Mr Handel Wopples, and during the performance of this Mr
Villiers walked into the theatre. He was a little pale, as was only
natural after such an adventure as he had been engaged in, but otherwise
seemed all right. He walked up to the first row of the stalls, and took
his seat beside a young man of about twenty-five, who was evidently much
amused at the performance.

'Hullo, Villiers!' said this young gentleman, turning round to the new
arrival, 'what d'ye think of the play?'

'Only just got in,' returned Mr Villiers, sulkily, looking at his
programme. 'Any good?' in a more amiable tone.

'Well, not bad,' returned the other, pulling up his collar; 'I've
seen it in Melbourne, you know--the original, I mean; this is a very
second-hand affair.'

Mr Villiers nodded, and became absorbed in his programme; so, seeing he
was disinclined for more conversation, the young gentleman turned his
attention to the 'Wopples Waltz', which was now being played fast and
furiously by the indefatigable orchestra of two.

Bartholomew Jarper--generally called Barty by his friends--was a bank
clerk, and had come up to Ballarat on a visit. He was well known in
Melbourne society, and looked upon himself quite as a leader of fashion.
He went everywhere, danced divinely--so the ladies said--sang two or
three little songs, and played the same accompaniment to each of them,
was seen constantly at the theatres, plunged a little at the races, and
was altogether an extremely gay dog. It is, then, little to be wondered
at that, satiated as he was with Melbourne gaiety, he should be vastly
critical of the humble efforts of the Wopples family to please him. He
had met Villiers at his hotel, when both of them being inebriated they
swore eternal friendship. Mr Villiers, however, was very sulky on this
particular night, for his head still pained him, so Barty stared round
the house in a supercilious manner, and sucked the nob of his cane for
refreshment between the acts.

Just as the orchestra were making their final plunge into the finale
of the 'Wopples' Waltz', M. Vandeloup, cool and calm as usual, strolled
into the theatre, and, seeing a vacant seat beside Villiers, walked over
and took it.

'Good evening, my friend,' he said, touching Villiers on the shoulder.
'Enjoying the play, eh?'

Villiers angrily pushed away the Frenchman's hand and glared
vindictively at him.

'Ah, you still bear malice for that little episode of the ditch,' said
Vandeloup with a gay laugh. 'Come, now, this is a mistake; let us be
friends.'

'Go to the devil!' growled Villiers, crossly.

'All right, my friend,' said M. Vandeloup, serenely crossing his legs.
'We'll all end up by paying a visit to that gentleman, but while we are
on earth we may as well be pleasant. Seen your wife lately?'

This apparently careless inquiry caused Mr Villiers to jump suddenly
out of his seat, much to the astonishment of Barty, who did not know for
what reason he was standing up.

'Ah! you want to look at the house, I suppose,' remarked M. Vandeloup,
lazily; 'the building is extremely ugly, but there are some redeeming
features in it. I refer, of course, to the number of pretty girls,' and
Gaston turned round and looked steadily at a red-haired damsel behind
him, who blushed and giggled, thinking he was referring to her.

Villiers resumed his seat with a sigh, and seeing that it was quite
useless to quarrel with Vandeloup, owing to that young man's coolness,
resolved to make the best of a bad job, and held out his hand with a
view to reconciliation.

'It's no use fighting with you,' he said, with an uneasy laugh, as the
other took his hand, 'you are so deuced amiable.'

'I am,' replied Gaston, calmly examining his programme; 'I practise all
the Christian virtues.'

Here Barty, on whom the Frenchman's appearance and conversation had
produced an impression, requested Villiers, in a stage whisper, to
introduce him--which was done. Vandeloup looked the young man coolly up
and down, and eventually decided that Mr Barty Jarper was a 'cad', for
whatever his morals might be, the Frenchman was a thorough gentleman.
However, as he was always diplomatic, he did not give utterance to his
idea, but taking a seat next to Barty's, he talked glibly to him until
the orchestra finished with a few final bangs, and the curtain drew up
on Act III.

The scene was the interior of a pawnshop, where the pawnbroker, a
gentleman of Hebraic descent (Mr Buckstone Wopples), sells the cruet
to the dishonest steward, who has come back from America disguised as
a sailor. The decayed family all rush in to buy the cruet stand, but on
finding it gone, overwhelm the pawnbroker with reproaches, so that
to quiet them he hides them all over the shop, on the chance that the
dishonest steward will come back. The dishonest steward does so,
and having found the will tears it up on the stage, upon which he
is assaulted by the decayed family, who rush out from all parts.
Ultimately, he reveals himself and hands back the cruet stand and the
estates to the decayed family, after which a general marrying all round
took place, which proceeding was very gratifying to the boys in the
gallery, who gave their opinions very freely, and the curtain fell amid
thunders of applause. Altogether 'The Cruet Stand' was a success,
and would have a steady run of three nights at least, so Mr Wopples
said--and as a manager of long standing, he was thoroughly well up in
the subject.

Villiers, Vandeloup, and Barty went out and had a drink, and as none of
them felt inclined to go to bed, Villiers told them he knew Mr Theodore
Wopples, and proposed that they should go behind the scenes and see
him. This was unanimously carried, and after some difficulty with the
door-keeper--a crusty old man with a red face and white hair, that
stood straight up in a tuft, and made him look like an infuriated
cockatoo--they obtained access to the mysterious regions of the stage,
and there found Master Sheridan Wopples practising a breakdown while
waiting for the rest of the family to get ready. This charming youth,
who was small, dried-up and wonderfully sharp, volunteered to guide them
to his father's dressing-room, and on knocking at the door Mr Wopples'
voice boomed out 'Come in,' in such an unexpected manner that it made
them all jump.

On entering the room they found Mr Wopples, dressed in a light tweed
suit, and just putting on his coat. It was a small room, with a flaring
gas-jet, under which there was a dressing-table littered over with
grease, paints, powder, vaseline and wigs, and upon it stood a small
looking-glass. A great basket-box with the lid wide open stood at the
end of the room, with a lot of clothes piled up on it, and numerous
other garments were hung up upon the walls. A washstand, with a basin
full of soapy water, stood under a curtainless window, and there was
only one chair to be seen, which Mr Wopples politely offered to his
visitor. Mr Villiers, however, told him he had brought two gentlemen
to introduce to him, at which Mr Wopples was delighted; and on the
introduction taking place, assured both Vandeloup and Barty that it was
one of the proudest moments of his life-a stock phrase he always used
when introduced to visitors. He was soon ready, and preceded the party
out of the room, when he stopped, struck with a sudden idea.

'I have left the gas burning in my dressing-room,' he said, in his
rolling voice, 'and, if you will permit me, gentlemen, I will go back
and turn it off.'

This was rather difficult to manage, inasmuch as the stairs were narrow,
and three people being between Mr Wopples and his dressing-room, he
could not squeeze past.

Finally the difficulty was settled by Villiers, who was last, and who
went back and turned out the gas.

When he came down he found Mr Wopples waiting for him.

'I thank you, sir,' he said, grandly, 'and will feel honoured if you
will give me the pleasure of your company at a modest supper consisting
principally of cold beef and pickles.'

Of course, they all expressed themselves delighted, and as the entire
Wopples family had already gone to their hotel, Mr Wopples with his
three guests went out of the theatre and wended their way towards the
same place, only dropping into two or three bars on the way to have
drinks at Barty's expense.

They soon arrived at the hotel, and having entered, Mr Wopples pushed
open the door of a room from whence the sound of laughter proceeded, and
introduced the three strangers to his family. The whole ten, together
with Mrs Wopples, were present, and were seated around a large table
plentifully laden with cold beef and pickles, salads, bottles of beer,
and other things too numerous to mention. Mr Wopples presented them
first to his wife, a faded, washed-out looking lady, with a perpetual
simper on her face, and clad in a lavender muslin gown with ribbons of
the same description, she looked wonderfully light and airy. In fact she
had a sketchy appearance as if she required to be touched up here and
there, to make her appear solid, which was of great service to her in
her theatrical career, as it enabled her to paint on the background of
herself any character she wished to represent.

'This,' said Mr Wopples in his deep voice, holding his wife's hand as if
he were afraid she would float upward thro' the ceiling like a bubble--a
not unlikely thing seeing how remarkably ethereal she looked; 'this is
my flutterer.'

Why he called her his flutterer no one ever knew, unless it was because
her ribbons were incessantly fluttering; but, had he called her his
shadow, the name would have been more appropriate.

Mrs Wopples fluttered down to the ground in a bow, and then fluttered up
again.

'Gentlemen,' she said, in a thin, clear voice, 'you are welcome. Did you
enjoy the performance?'

'Madame,' returned Vandeloup, with a smile, 'need you ask that?'

A shadowy smile floated over Mrs Wopples' indistinct features, and then
her husband introduced the rest of the family in a bunch.

'Gentlemen,' he said, waving his hand to the expectant ten, who stood in
a line of five male and five female, 'the celebrated Wopples family.'

The ten all simultaneously bowed at this as if they were worked by
machinery, and then everyone sat down to supper, Mr Theodore Wopples
taking the head of the table. All the family seemed to admire him
immensely, and kept their eyes fastened on his face with affectionate
regard.

'Pa,' whispered Miss Siddons Wopples to Villiers, who sat next to her,
'is a most wonderful man. Observe his facial expression.'

Villiers observed it, and admitted also in a whisper that it was truly
marvellous.

Cold beef formed the staple viand on the table, and everyone did full
justice to it, as also to beer and porter, of which Mr Wopples was very
generous.

'I prefer to give my friends good beer instead of bad champagne,' he
said, pompously. 'Ha! ha! the antithesis, I think, is good.'

The Wopples family unanimously agreed that it was excellent, and Mr
Handel Wopples observed to Barty that his father often made jokes worthy
of Tom Hood, to which Barty agreed hastily, as he did not know who Tom
Hood was, and besides was flirting in a mild manner with Miss Fanny
Wopples, a pretty girl, who did the burlesque business.

'And are all these big boys and girls yours, Madame?' asked Vandeloup,
who was rather astonished at the number of the family, and thought
some of them might have been hired for theatrical purposes. Mrs Wopples
nodded affirmatively with a gratified flutter, and her husband endorsed
it.

'There are four dead,' he said, in a solemn voice. 'Rest their souls.'

All the ten faces round the board reflected the gloom on the parental
countenance, and for a few moments no one spoke.

'This,' said Mr Wopples, looking round with a smile, at which all the
other faces lighted up, 'this is not calculated to make our supper
enjoyable, children. I may tell you that, in consequence of the great
success of "The Cruet Stand", we play it again to-morrow night.'

'Ah!' said Mr Buckstone Wopples, with his mouth full, 'I knew it would
knock 'em; that business of yours, father, with the writ is simply
wonderful.'

All the family chorused 'Yes,' and Mr Wopples admitted, with a modest
smile, that it was wonderful.

'Practise,' said Mr Wopples, waving a fork with a piece of cold beef at
the end of it, 'makes perfect. My dear Vandeloup, if you will permit me
to call you so, my son Buckstone is truly a wonderful critic.'

Vandeloup smiled at this, and came to the conclusion that the Wopples
family was a mutual admiration society. However, as it was now nearly
twelve o'clock, he rose to take his leave.

'Oh, you're not going yet,' said Mr Wopples, upon which all the family
echoed, 'Surely, not yet,' in a most hospitable manner.

'I must,' said Vandeloup, with a smile. 'I know Madame will excuse me,'
with a bow to Mrs Wopples, who thereupon fluttered nervously; 'but I
have to be up very early in the morning.'

'In that case,' said Mr Wopples, rising, 'I will not detain you; early
to bed and early to rise, you know; not that I believe in it much
myself, but I understand it is practised with good results by some
people.'

Vandeloup shook hands with Mr and Mrs Wopples, but feeling unequal to
taking leave of the ten star artistes in the same way, he bowed in a
comprehensive manner, whereupon the whole ten arose from their chairs
and bowed unanimously in return.

'Good night, Messrs Villiers and Jarper,' said Vandeloup, going out of
the door, 'I will see you to-morrow.'

'And we also, I hope,' said Mr Wopples, ungrammatically. 'Come and see
"The Cruet Stand" again. I'll put your name on the free list.'

M. Vandeloup thanked the actor warmly for this kind offer, and took
himself off; as he passed along the street he heard a burst of laughter
from the Wopples family, no doubt caused by some witticism of the head
of the clan.

He walked slowly home to the hotel, smoking a cigarette, and thinking
deeply. When he arrived at the 'Wattle Tree' he saw a light still
burning in the bar, and, on knocking at the door, was admitted by Miss
Twexby, who had been making up accounts, and whose virgin head was
adorned with curl-papers.

'My!' said this damsel, when she saw him, 'you are a nice young man
coming home at this hour--twelve o'clock. See?' and, as a proof of her
assertion, she pointed to the clock.

'Were you waiting up for me, dear?' asked Vandeloup, audaciously.

'Not I,' retorted Miss Twexby, tossing her curl-papers; 'I've been
attending to par's business; but, oh, gracious!' with a sudden
recollection of her head-gear, 'you've seen me in undress.'

'And you look more charming than ever,' finished Vandeloup, as he took
his bedroom candle from her. 'I will see you in the morning. My friend
still asleep, I suppose?'

'I'm sure I don't know. I haven't seen him all the evening,' replied
Miss Twexby, tossing her head, 'now, go away. You're a naughty, wicked,
deceitful thing. I declare I'm quite afraid of you.'

'There's no need, I assure you,' replied Vandeloup, in a slightly
sarcastic voice, as he surveyed the plain-looking woman before him; 'you
are quite safe from me.'

He left the bar, whistling an air, while the fair Martha returned to
her accounts, and wondered indignantly whether his last remark was a
compliment or otherwise.

The conclusion she came to was that it was otherwise, and she retired to
bed in a very wrathful frame of mind.



CHAPTER XIV

A MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE


Madame Midas, as may be easily guessed, did not pass a very pleasant
night after the encounter with Villiers. Her head was very painful with
the blow he had given her, and added to this she was certain she had
killed him.

Though she hated the man who had ruined her life, and who had tried to
rob her, still she did not care about becoming his murderess, and the
thought was madness to her. Not that she was afraid of punishment,
for she had only acted in self-defence, and Villiers, not she, was the
aggressor.

Meanwhile she waited to hear if the body had been found, for ill news
travels fast; and as everyone knew Villiers was her husband, she was
satisfied that when the corpse was found she would be the first to be
told about it.

But the day wore on, and no news came, so she asked Archie to go into
Ballarar and see if the discovery had been made.

''Deed, mem,' said Archie, in a consoling tone, 'I'm thinkin' there's na
word at all. Maybe ye only stapped his pranks for a wee bit, and he's a'
richt.'

Madame shook her head.

'I gave him such a terrible blow,' she said, mournfully, 'and he fell
like a stone over the embankment.'

'He didna leave go the nugget, onyhow, ye ken,' said Archie, dryly; 'so
he couldna hae been verra far gone, but I'll gang intil the toun and see
what I can hear.'

There was no need for this, however, for just as McIntosh got to the
door, Vandeloup, cool and complacent, sauntered in, but stopped short at
the sight of Mrs Villiers sitting in the arm-chair looking so ill.

'My dear Madame,' he cried in dismay, going over to her, 'what is the
matter with you?'

'Matter enow,' growled McIntosh, with his hand on the door handle; 'that
deil o' a' husband o' her's has robbed her o' the nugget.'

'Yes, and I killed him,' said Madame between her clenched teeth.

'The deuce you did,' said Vandeloup, in surprise, taking a seat, 'then
he was the liveliest dead man I ever saw.'

'What do you mean?' asked Madame, leaning forward, with both hands
gripping the arms of her chair; 'is--is he alive?'

'Of course he is,' began Vandeloup; 'I--' but here he was stopped by a
cry from Selina, for her mistress had fallen back in her chair in a dead
faint.

Hastily waving for the men to go away, she applied remedies, and Madame
soon revived. Vandeloup had gone outside with McIntosh, and was asking
him about the robbery, and then told him in return about Villiers'
movements on that night. Selina called them in again, as Madame wanted
to hear all about her husband, and Vandeloup was just entering when he
turned to McIntosh.

'Oh, by the way,' he said, in a vexed tone, 'Pierre will not be at work
today.'

'What for no?' asked McIntosh, sharply.

'He's drunk,' replied Vandeloup, curtly, 'and he's likely to keep the
game up for a week.'

'We'll see about that,' said Mr McIntosh, wrathfully; 'I tauld yon gowk
o' a Twexby to give the mon food and drink, but I didna tell him to mack
the deil fu'.'

'It wasn't the landlord's fault,' said Vandeloup; 'I gave Pierre
money--if I had known what he wanted it for I wouldn't have done it--but
it's too late now.'

McIntosh was about to answer sharply as to the folly of giving the man
money, when Madame's voice was heard calling them impatiently, and they
both had to go in at once.

Mrs Villiers was ghastly pale, but there was a look of determination
about her which showed that she was anxious to hear all. Pointing to a
seat near herself she said to Vandeloup--

'Tell me everything that happened from the time I left you last night.'

'My faith,' replied Vandeloup, carelessly taking the seat, 'there isn't
much to tell--I said goodbye to Monsieur Marchurst and Mademoiselle
Kitty and went down to Ballarar.'

'How was it you did not pass me on the way?' asked Madame, quickly
fixing her piercing eyes on him. 'I drove slowly.'

He bore her scrutiny without blenching or even changing colour.

'Easily enough,' he said, calmly, 'I went the other direction instead of
the usual way, as it was the shortest route to the place I was stopping
at.'

'The "Wattle Tree", ye ken, Madame,' interposed McIntosh.

'I had something to eat there,' pursued Vandeloup, 'and then went to the
theatre. Your husband came in towards the end of the performance and sat
next to me.'

'Was he all right?' asked Mrs Villiers, eagerly.

Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

'I didn't pay much attention to him,' he said, coolly; 'he seemed to
enjoy the play, and afterwards, when we went to supper with the actors,
he certainly ate very heartily for a dead man. I don't think you need
trouble yourself, Madame; your husband is quite well.'

'What time did you leave him?' she asked, after a pause.

'About twenty minutes to twelve, I think,' replied Vandeloup, 'at least,
I reached the "Wattle Tree" at about twelve o'clock, and I think it did
take twenty minutes to walk there. Monsieur Villiers stopped behind with
the theatre people to enjoy himself.'

Enjoying himself, and she, thinking him dead, was crying over his
miserable end; it was infamous! Was this man a monster who could thus
commit a crime one moment and go to an amusement the next? It seemed
like it, and Mrs Villiers felt intense disgust towards her husband
as she sat with tightly clenched hands and dry eyes listening to
Vandeloup's recital.

'Weel,' said Mr McIntosh at length, rubbing his scanty hair, 'the deil
looks after his ain, as we read in Screepture, and this child of Belial
is flourishing like a green bay tree by mony waters; but we ma' cut it
doon an' lay an axe at the root thereof.'

'And how do you propose to chop him down?' asked Vandeloup, flippantly.

'Pit him intil the Tolbooth for rinnin' awa' wi' the nugget,' retorted
Mr McIntosh, vindictively.

'A very sensible suggestion,' said Gaston, approvingly, smoothing his
moustache. 'What do you say, Madame?'

She shook her head.

'Let him keep his ill-gotten gains,' she said, resignedly. 'Now that
he has obtained what he wanted, perhaps he'll leave me alone; I will do
nothing.'

'Dae naethin'!' echoed Archie, in great wrath. 'Will ye let that
freend o' Belzibub rin awa' wid a three hun'red ounces of gold an' dae
naethin'? Na, na, ye mauna dae it, I tell ye. Oh, aye, ye may sit
there, mem, and glower awa' like a boggle, but ye aren'a gangin' to make
yoursel' a martyr for yon. Keep the nugget? I'll see him damned first.'

This was the first time that Archie had ever dared to cross Mrs
Villiers' wishes, and she stared in amazement at the unwonted spectacle.
This time, however, McIntosh found an unexpected ally in Vandeloup, who
urged that Villiers should be prosecuted.

'He is not only guilty of robbery, Madame,' said the young Frenchman,
'but also of an attempt to murder you, and while he is allowed to go
free, your life is not safe.'

Selina also contributed her mite of wisdom in the form of a proverb:--

'A stitch in time saves nine,' intimating thereby that Mr Villiers
should be locked up and never let out again, in case he tried the same
game on with the next big nugget found.

Madame thought for a few moments, and, seeing that they were all
unanimous, she agreed to the proposal that Villiers should be
prosecuted, with the stipulation, however, that he should be first
written to and asked to give up the nugget. If he did, and promised to
leave the district, no further steps would be taken; but if he declined
to do so, his wife would prosecute him with the uttermost rigour of
the law. Then Madame dismissed them, as she was anxious to get a little
sleep, and Vandeloup went to the office to write the letter, accompanied
by McIntosh, who wanted to assist in its composition.

Meanwhile there was another individual in Ballarat who was much
interested in Villiers, and this kind-hearted gentleman was none other
than Slivers. Villiers was accustomed to come and sit in his office
every morning, and talk to him about things in general, and the Pactolus
claim in particular. On this morning, however, he did not arrive, and
Slivers was much annoyed thereat. He determined to give Villiers a piece
of his mind when he did see him. He went about his business at 'The
Corner', bought some shares, sold others, and swindled as many people
as he was able, then came back to his office and waited in all the
afternoon for his friend, who, however, did not come.

Slivers was just going out to seek him when the door of his office was
violently flung open, and a tall, raw-boned female entered in a very
excited manner. Dressed in a dusty black gown, with a crape bonnet
placed askew on her rough hair, this lady banged on Slivers' table a
huge umbrella and demanded where Villiers was.

'I don't know,' snapped Slivers, viciously; 'how the devil should I?'

'Don't swear at me, you wooden-legged little monster,' cried the virago,
with another bang of the umbrella, which raised such a cloud of dust
that it nearly made Slivers sneeze his head off. 'He ain't been home
all night, and you've been leading him into bad habits, you cork-armed
libertine.'

'Hasn't been home all night, eh?' said Slivers, sitting up quickly,
while Billy, who had been considerably alarmed at the gaunt female,
retired to the fireplace, and tried to conceal himself up the chimney.
'May I ask who you are?'

'You may,' said the angry lady, folding her arms and holding the
umbrella in such an awkward manner that she nearly poked Slivers'
remaining eye out.

'Well, who are you?' snapped Slivers, crossly, after waiting a
reasonable time for an answer and getting none.

'I'm his landlady,' retorted the other, with a defiant snort. 'Matilda
Cheedle is my name, and I don't care who knows it.'

'It's not a pretty name,' snarled Slivers, prodding the ground with his
wooden leg, as he always did when angry. 'Neither are you. What do
you mean by banging into my office like an insane giraffe?'--this in
allusion to Mrs Cheedle's height.

'Oh, go on! go on!' said that lady defiantly; 'I've heard it all before;
I'm used to it; but here I sit until you tell me where my lodger is;'
and suiting the action to the word, Mrs Cheedle sat down in a chair with
such a bang that Billy gave a screech of alarm and said, 'Pickles!'

'Pickles, you little bag of bones!' cried Mrs Cheedle, who thought that
the word had proceeded from Slivers, 'don't you call me "Pickles"--but
I'm used to it. I'm a lonely woman since Cheedle went to the cemetery,
and I'm always being insulted. Oh, my nerves are shattered under such
treatment'--this last because she saw the whisky bottle on the table,
and thought she might get some.

Slivers took the hint, and filling a glass with whisky and water passed
it to her, and Mrs Cheedle, with many protestations that she never
touched spirits, drank it to the last drop.

'Was Villiers always in the habit of coming home?' he asked.

'Always,' replied Mrs Cheedle; 'he's bin with me eighteen months and
never stopped out one night; if he had,' grimly, 'I'd have known the
reason of his rampagin'.'

'Strange,' said Slivers, thoughtfully, fixing Mrs Cheedle with his one
eye; 'when did you see him last?'

'About three o'clock yesterday,' said Mrs Cheedle, looking sadly at a
hole in one of her cotton gloves; 'his conduct was most extraordinary;
he came home at that unusual hour, changed his linen clothes for a dark
suit, and, after he had eaten something, put on another hat, and walked
off with a stick under his arm.'

'And you've never seen him since?'

'Not a blessed sight of him,' replied Mrs Cheedle; 'you don't think
any harm's come to him, sir? Not as I care much for him--the drunken
wretch--but still he's a lodger and owes me rent, so I don't know but
what he might be off to Melbourne without paying, and leaving his boxes
full of bricks behind.'

'I'll have a look round, and if I see him I'll send him home,' said
Slivers, rising to intimate the interview was at end.

'Very well, mind you do,' said the widow, rising and putting the empty
glass on the table, 'send him home at once and I'll speak to him. And
perhaps,' with a bashful glance, 'you wouldn't mind seeing me up the
street a short way, as I'm alone and unprotected.'

'Stuff!' retorted Slivers, ungraciously, 'there's plenty of light, and
you are big enough to look after yourself.'

At this Mrs Cheedle snorted loudly like a war-horse, and flounced out
of the office in a rage, after informing Slivers in a loud voice that he
was a selfish, cork-eyed little viper, from which confusion of words it
will easily be seen that the whisky had taken effect on the good lady.

When she had gone Slivers locked up his office, and sallied forth to
find the missing Villiers, but though he went all over town to that
gentleman's favourite haunts, mostly bars, yet he could see nothing of
him; and on making inquiries heard that he had not been seen in Ballarat
all day. This was so contrary to Villiers' general habits that Slivers
became suspicious, and as he walked home thinking over the subject he
came to the conclusion there was something up.

'If,' said Slivers, pausing on the pavement and addressing a street
lamp, 'he doesn't turn up to-morrow I'll have a look for him again. If
that don't do I'll tell the police, and I shouldn't wonder,' went on
Slivers, musingly, 'I shouldn't wonder if they called on Madame Midas.'



CHAPTER XV

SLIVERS IN SEARCH OF EVIDENCE


Slivers was puzzled over Villiers' disappearance, so he determined to
go in search of evidence against Madame Midas, though for what reason he
wanted evidence against her no one but himself--and perhaps Billy--knew.
But then Slivers always was an enigma regarding his reasons for doing
things, and even the Sphinx would have found him a difficult riddle to
solve.

The reasons he had for turning detective were simply these: It soon
became known that Madame Midas had been robbed by her husband of the
famous nugget, and great was the indignation of everyone against Mr
Villiers. That gentleman would have fared very badly if he had made his
appearance, but for some reason or another he did not venture forth. In
fact, he had completely disappeared, and where he was no one knew. The
last person who saw him was Barty Jarper, who left him at the corner of
Lydiard and Sturt Streets, when Mr Villiers had announced his intention
of going home. Mrs Cheedle, however, asserted positively that she had
never set eyes on him since the time she stated to Slivers, and as it
was now nearly two weeks since he had disappeared things were beginning
to look serious. The generally received explanation was that he had
bolted with the nugget, but as he could hardly dispose of such a large
mass of gold without suspicion, and as the police both in Ballarat and
Melbourne had made inquiries, which proved futile, this theory began to
lose ground.

It was at this period that Slivers asserted himself--coming forward, he
hinted in an ambiguous sort of way that Villiers had met with foul play,
and that some people had their reasons for wishing to get rid of him.
This was clearly an insinuation against Madame Midas, but everyone
refused to believe such an impossible story, so Slivers determined to
make good his words, and went in search of evidence.

The Wopples Family having left Ballarat, Slivers was unable to see Mr
Theodore Wopples, who had been in Villiers' company on the night of his
disappearance.

Mr Barty Jarper, however, had not yet departed, so Slivers waylaid him,
and asked him in a casual way to drop into his office and have a drink,
with a view of finding out from him all the events of that night.

Barty was on his way to a lawn tennis party, and was arrayed in a
flannel suit of many colours, with his small, white face nearly hidden
under a large straw hat. Being of a social turn of mind, he did not
refuse Slivers' invitation, but walked into the dusty office and
assisted himself liberally to the whisky.

'Here's fun, old cock!' he said, in a free and easy manner, raising his
glass to his lips; 'may your shadow never be less.'

Slivers hoped devoutly that his shadow never would be less, as that
would involve the loss of several other limbs, which he could ill
spare; so he honoured Mr Jarper's toast with a rasping little laugh, and
prepared to talk.

'It's very kind of you to come and talk to an old chap like me,' said
Slivers, in as amiable a tone as he could command, which was not much.
'You're such a gay young fellow!'

Mr Jarper acknowledged modestly that he was gay, but that he owed
certain duties to society, and had to be mildly social.

'And so handsome!' croaked Slivers, winking with his one eye at Billy,
who sat on the table. 'Oh, he's all there, ain't he, Billy?'

Billy, however, did not agree to this, and merely observed 'Pickles,' in
a disbelieving manner.

Mr Jarper felt rather overcome by this praise, and blushed in a modest
way, but felt that he could not return the compliment with any degree of
truth, as Slivers was not handsome, neither was he all there.

He, however, decided that Slivers was an unusually discerning person,
and worthy to talk to, so prepared to make himself agreeable.

Slivers, who had thus gained the goodwill of the young man by flattery,
plunged into the subject of Villiers' disappearance.

'I wonder what's become of Villiers,' he said, artfully pushing the
whisky bottle toward Barty.

'I'm sure I don't know,' said Barty in a languid, used-up sort of voice,
pouring himself out some more whisky, 'I haven't seen him since last
Monday week.'

'Where did you leave him on that night?' asked Slivers.

'At the corner of Sturt and Lydiard Streets.'

'Early in the morning, I suppose?'

'Yes--pretty early--about two o'clock, I think.'

'And you never saw him after that?'

'Not a sight of him,' replied Barty; 'but, I say, why all this
thusness?'

'I'll tell you after you have answered my questions,' retorted Slivers,
rudely, 'but I'm not asking out of curiosity--its business.'

Barty thought that Slivers was very peculiar, but determined to humour
him, and to take his leave as early as possible.

'Well, go on,' he said, drinking his whisky, 'I'll answer.'

'Who else was with you and Villiers on that night?' asked Slivers in a
magisterial kind of manner.

'A French fellow called Vandeloup.'

'Vandeloup!' echoed Slivers in surprise; 'oh, indeed! what the devil was
he doing?'

'Enjoying himself,' replied Barty, coolly; 'he came into the theatre and
Villiers introduced him to me; then Mr Wopples asked us all to supper.'

'You went, of course?'

'Rather, old chap; what do you take us for?'--this from Barty, with a
knowing wink.

'What time did Vandeloup leave?' asked Slivers, not paying any attention
to Barty's pantomime.

'About twenty minutes to twelve.'

'Oh! I suppose that was because he had to drive out to the Pactolus?'

'Not such a fool, dear boy; he stayed all night in town.'

'Oh!' ejaculated Slivers, in an excited manner, drumming on the table
with his fingers, 'where did he stay?'

'At the Wattle Tree Hotel.'

Slivers mentally made a note of this, and determined to go there and
find out at what time Vandeloup had come home on the night in question,
for this suspicious old man had now got it into his head that Vandeloup
was in some way responsible for Villiers' disappearance.

'Where did Villiers say he was going when he left you?' he asked.

'Straight home.'

'Humph! Well, he didn't go home at all.'

'Didn't he?' echoed Barty, in some astonishment. 'Then what's become of
him? Men don't disappear in this mysterious way without some reason.'

'Ah, but there is a reason,' replied Slivers, bending across the table
and clawing at the papers thereon with the lean fingers of his one hand.

'Why! what do you think is the reason?' faltered Barty, letting his
eye-glass drop out of his eye, and edging his chair further away from
this terrible old man.

'Murder!' hissed the other through his thin lips. 'He's been murdered!'

'Lord!' ejaculated Barty, jumping up from his chair in alarm; 'you're
going too far, old chap.'

'I'm going further,' retorted Slivers, rising from his chair and
stumping up and down the room; 'I'm going to find out who did it, and
then I'll grind her to powder; I'll twist her neck off, curse her.'

'Is it a woman?' asked Barty, who now began to think of making a
retreat, for Slivers, with his one eye blazing, and his cork arm
swinging rapidly to and fro, was not a pleasant object to contemplate.

This unguarded remark recalled Slivers to himself.

That's what I want to find out,' he replied, sulkily, going back to his
chair. 'Have some more whisky?'

'No, thanks,' answered Barty, going to the door, 'I'm late as it is for
my engagement; ta, ta, old chap, I hope you'll drop on the he or she
you're looking for; but you're quite wrong, Villiers has bolted with the
nugget, and that's a fact, sir,' and with an airy wave of his hand Barty
went out, leaving Slivers in anything but a pleasant temper.

'Bah! you peacock,' cried this wicked old man, banging his wooden leg
against the table, 'you eye-glass idiot--you brainless puppy--I'm wrong,
am I? we'll see about that, you rag-shop.' This last in allusion to
Barty's picturesque garb. 'I've found out all I want from you, and I'll
track her down, and put her in gaol, and hang her--hang her till she's
as dead as a door nail.'

Having given vent to this pleasant sentiment, Slivers put on his hat,
and, taking his stick, walked out of his office, but not before Billy
saw his intention and had climbed up to his accustomed place on the old
man's shoulder. So Slivers stumped along the street, with the cockatoo
on his shoulder, looking like a depraved Robinson Crusoe, and took his
way to the Wattle Tree Hotel.

'If,' argued Slivers to himself, as he pegged bravely along, 'if
Villiers wanted to get rid of the nugget he'd have come to me, for he
knew I'd keep quiet and tell no tales. Well, he didn't come to me, and
there's no one else he could go to. They've been looking for him all
over the shop, and they can't find him; he can't be hiding or he'd have
let me know; there's only one explanation--he's been murdered--but not
for the gold--oh, dear no--for nobody knew he had it. Who wanted him out
of the way?--his wife. Would she stick at anything?--I'm damned if she
would. So it's her work. The only question is did she do it personally
or by deputy. I say deputy, 'cause she'd be too squeamish to do it
herself. Who would she select as deputy?--Vandeloup! Why?--'cause he'd
like to marry her for her money. Yes, I'm sure it's him. Things look
black against him: he stayed in town all night, a thing he never
did before--leaves the supper at a quarter to twelve, so as to avoid
suspicion; waits till Villiers comes out at two in the morning and kills
him. Aha! my handsome jackadandy,' cried Slivers, viciously, suddenly
stopping and shaking his stick at an imaginary Vandeloup; 'I've got you
under my thumb, and I'll crush the life out of you--and of her also, if
I can;' and with this amiable resolution Slivers resumed his way.

Slivers' argument was plausible, but there were plenty of flaws in it,
which, however, he did not stop to consider, so carried away was he by
his anger against Madame Midas. He stumped along doggedly, revolving the
whole affair in his mind, and by the time he arrived at the Wattle Tree
Hotel he had firmly persuaded himself that Villiers was dead, and that
Vandeloup had committed the crime at the instigation of Mrs Villiers.

He found Miss Twexby seated in the bar, with a decidedly cross face,
which argued ill for anyone who held converse with her that day; but as
Slivers was quite as crabbed as she was, and, moreover, feared neither
God nor man--much less a woman--he tackled her at once.

'Where's your father?' he asked, abruptly, leaning on his stick and
looking intently at the fair Martha's vinegary countenance.

'Asleep!' snapped that damsel, jerking her head in the direction of the
parlour; 'what do you want?'--very disdainfully.

'A little civility in the first place,' retorted Slivers, rudely,
sitting down on a bench that ran along the wall, and thereby causing his
wooden leg to stick straight out, which, being perceived by Billy, he
descended from the old man's shoulder and turned the leg into a perch,
where he sat and swore at Martha.

'You wicked old wretch,' said Miss Twexby, viciously--her nose getting
redder with suppressed excitement--'go along with you, and take that
irreligious parrot with you, or I'll wake my par.'

'He won't thank you for doing so,' replied Slivers, coolly; 'I've called
to see him about some new shares just on the market, and if you don't
treat me with more respect I'll go, and he'll be out of a good thing.'

Now, Miss Twexby knew that Slivers was in the habit of doing business
with her parent, and, moreover was a power in the share market, so she
did not deem it diplomatic to go too far, and bottling up her wrath for
a future occasion, when no loss would be involved, she graciously asked
Slivers what he'd be pleased to have.

'Whisky,' said Slivers, curtly, leaning his chin on his stick, and
following her movements with his one eye. 'I say!'

'Well?' asked Miss Twexby, coming from behind the bar with a glass and a
bottle of whisky, 'what do you say?'

'How's that good-looking Frenchman?' asked Slivers, pouring himself out
some liquor, and winking at her in a rakish manner with his one eye.

'How should I know?' snapped Martha, angrily, 'he comes here to see that
friend of his, and then clears out without as much as a good day; a nice
sort of friend, indeed,' wrathfully, 'stopping here nearly two weeks
and drunk all the time; he'll be having delirious trimmings before he's
done.'

'Who will ?' said Slivers, taking a sip of his whisky and water.

'Why, that other Frenchman!' retorted Martha, going to her place behind
the bar, 'Peter something; a low, black wretch, all beard, with no
tongue, and a thirst like a lime-kiln.'

'Oh, the dumb man.'

Miss Twexby nodded.

'That's him,' she said, triumphantly, 'he's been here for the last two
weeks.'

'Drunk, I think you said,' remarked Slivers, politely.

Martha laughed scornfully, and took out some sewing.

'I should just think so,' she retorted, tossing her head, 'he does
nothing but drink all day, and run after people with that knife.'

'Very dangerous,' observed Slivers, gravely shaking his head; 'why don't
you get rid of him?'

'So we are,' said Miss Twexby, biting off a bit of cotton, as if she
wished it were Pierre's head; 'he is going down to Melbourne the day
after to-morrow.'

Slivers got weary of hearing about Pierre, and plunged right off into
the object of his visit.

'That Vandeloup,' he began.

'Well?' said Miss Twexby, letting the work fall on her lap.

'What time did he come home the night he stopped here?'

'Twelve o'clock.'

'Get along with you,' said Slivers, in disgust, 'you mean three
o'clock.'

'No, I don't,' retorted Martha, indignantly; 'you'll be telling me I
don't know the time next.'

'Did he go out again?

'No, he went to bed.'

This quite upset Slivers' idea--as if Vandeloup had gone to bed at
twelve, he certainly could not have murdered Villiers nearly a mile away
at two o'clock in the morning. Slivers was puzzled, and then the light
broke on him--perhaps it was the dumb man.

'Did the other stay here all night also?'

Miss Twexby nodded. 'Both in the same room,' she answered.

'What time did the dumb chap come in?'

'Half-past nine.'

Here was another facer for Slivers--as it could not have been Pierre.

'Did he go to bed?'

'Straight.'

'And did not leave the house again?'

'Of course not,' retorted Miss Twexby, impatiently; 'do you think I'm a
fool--no one goes either in or out of this house without my knowing
it. The dumb devil went to bed at half-past nine, and Mr Vandeloup at
half-past twelve, and they neither of them came out of their rooms till
next morning.'

'How do you know Vandeloup was in at twelve?' asked Slivers, still
unconvinced.

'Drat the man, what's he worryin' about?' rejoined Miss Twexby,
snappishly; 'I let him in myself.'

This clearly closed the subject, and Slivers arose to his feet in great
disgust, upsetting Billy on to the floor.

'Devil!' shrieked Billy, as he dropped. 'Oh, my precious mother.
Devil--devil--devil--you're a liar--you're a liar--Bendigo and
Ballarat--Ballarat and Bendigo--Pickles!'

Having thus run through a portion of his vocabulary, he subsided into
silence, and let Slivers pick him up in order to go home.

'A nice pair you are,' muttered Martha, grimly, looking at them. 'I wish
I had the thrashing of you. Won't you stay and see par?' she called out
as Slivers departed.

'I'll come to-morrow,' answered Slivers, angrily, for he felt very much
out of temper; then, in a lower voice, he observed to himself, 'I'd like
to put that jade in a teacup and crush her.'

He stumped home in silence, thinking all the time; and it was only when
he arrived back in his office that he gave utterance to his thoughts.

'It couldn't have been either of the Frenchmen,' he said, lighting his
pipe. 'She must have done it herself.'



CHAPTER XVI

MCINTOSH SPEAKS HIS MIND


It was some time before Mrs Villiers recovered from the shock caused by
her encounter with her husband. The blow he had struck her on the side
of the head turned out to be more serious than was at first anticipated,
and Selina deemed it advisable that a doctor should be called in.
So Archie went into Ballarat, and returned to the Pactolus with Dr
Gollipeck, an eccentric medical practitioner, whose peculiarities were
the talk of the city.

Dr Gollipeck was tall and lank, with an unfinished look about him, as
if Nature in some sudden freak had seized an incomplete skeleton from a
museum and hastily covered it with parchment. He dressed in rusty black,
wore dingy cotton gloves, carried a large white umbrella, and surveyed
the world through the medium of a pair of huge spectacles. His clothes
were constantly coming undone, as he scorned the use of buttons, and
preferred pins, which were always scratching his hands. He spoke very
little, and was engaged in composing an erudite work on 'The Art of
Poisoning, from Borgia to Brinvilliers'.

Selina was not at all impressed with his appearance, and mentally
decided that a good wash and a few buttons would improve him
wonderfully. Dr Gollipeck, however, soon verified the adage that
appearances are deceptive--as Selina afterwards remarked to Archie--by
bringing Madame Midas back to health in a wonderfully short space of
time. She was now convalescent, and, seated in the arm-chair by the
window, looked dreamily at the landscape. She was thinking of her
husband, and in what manner he would annoy her next; but she half
thought--and the wish was father to the half thought--that having got
the nugget he would now leave her alone.

She knew that he had not been in Ballarat since that fatal night when he
had attacked her, but imagined that he was merely hiding till such time
as the storm should blow over and he could enjoy his ill-gotten gains in
safety. The letter asking him to give up the nugget and ordering him
to leave the district under threat of prosecution had been sent to his
lodgings, but was still lying there unopened. The letters accumulated
into quite a little pile as weeks rolled on, yet Mr Villiers, if he was
alive, made no sign, and if he was dead, no traces had been found of his
body. McIntosh and Slivers had both seen the police about the affair,
one in order to recover the nugget, the other actuated by bitter enmity
against Madame Midas. To Slivers' hints, that perhaps Villiers' wife
knew more than she chose to tell, the police turned a deaf ear, as they
assured Slivers that they had made inquiries, and on the authority of
Selina and McIntosh could safely say that Madame Midas had been home
that night at half-past nine o'clock, whereas Villiers was still alive
in Ballarat--as could be proved by the evidence of Mr Jarper--at two
o'clock in the morning. So, foiled on every side in his endeavours to
implicate Mrs Villiers in her husband's disappearance, Slivers retired
to his office, and, assisted by his ungodly cockatoo, passed many hours
in swearing at his bad luck and in cursing the absent Villiers.

As to M. Vandeloup, he was indefatigable in his efforts to find
Villiers, for, as he very truly said, he could never repay Madame Midas
sufficiently for her kindness to him, and he wanted to do all in his
power to punish her cruel husband. But in spite of all this seeking, the
whereabouts of Mr Randolph Villiers remained undiscovered, and at last,
in despair, everyone gave up looking. Villiers had disappeared entirely,
and had taken the nugget with him, so where he was and what he was doing
remained a mystery.

One result of Madame's illness was that M. Vandeloup had met Dr
Gollipeck, and the two, though apparently dissimilar in both character
and appearance, had been attracted to one another by a liking which they
had in common. This was the study of toxicology, a science at which
the eccentric old man had spent a lifetime. He found in Vandeloup a
congenial spirit, for the young Frenchman had a wonderful liking for
the uncanny subject; but there was a difference in the aims of both men,
Gollipeck being drawn to the study of poisons from a pure love of the
subject, whereas Vandeloup wanted to find out the secrets of toxicology
for his own ends, which were anything but disinterested.

Wearied of the dull routine of the office work, Vandeloup was taking
a walk in the meadows which surrounded the Pactolus, when he saw Dr
Gollipeck shuffling along the dusty white road from the railway station.

'Good day, Monsieur le Medecin,' said Vandeloup, gaily, as he came up to
the old man; 'are you going to see our mutual friend?'

Gollipeck, ever sparing of words, nodded in reply, and trudged on in
silence, but the Frenchmen, being used to the eccentricities of his
companion, was in nowise offended at his silence, but went on talking in
an animated manner.

'Ah, my dear friend,' he said, pushing his straw hat back on his fair
head; 'how goes on the great work?'

'Capitally,' returned the doctor, with a complacent smile; 'just
finished "Catherine de Medici"--wonderful woman, sir--quite a mistress
of the art of poisoning.'

'Humph,' returned Vandeloup, thoughtfully, lighting a cigarette, 'I do
not agree with you there; it was her so-called astrologer, Ruggieri,
who prepared all her potions. Catherine certainly had the power, but
Ruggieri possessed the science--a very fair division of labour for
getting rid of people, I must say--but what have you got there?' nodding
towards a large book which Gollipeck carried under his arm.

'For you,' answered the other, taking the book slowly from under his
arm, and thereby causing another button to fly off, 'quite new,--work on
toxicology.'

'Thank you,' said Vandeloup, taking the heavy volume and looking at the
title; 'French, I see! I'm sure it will be pleasant reading.'

The title of the book was 'Les Empoisonneurs d'Aujourd'hui, par MM.
Prevol et Lebrun', and it had only been published the previous year; so
as he turned over the leaves carelessly, M. Vandeloup caught sight of
a name which he knew. He smiled a little, and closing the book put it
under his arm, while he turned smilingly towards his companion, whom he
found looking keenly at him.

'I shall enjoy this book immensely,' he said, touching the volume. Dr
Gollipeck nodded and chuckled in a hoarse rattling kind of way.

'So I should think,' he answered, with another sharp look, 'you are a
very clever young man, my friend.'

Vandeloup acknowledged the compliment with a bow, and wondered mentally
what this old man meant. Gaston, however, was never without an answer,
so he turned to Gollipeck again with a nonchalant smile on his handsome
lips.

'So kind of you to think well of me,' he said, coolly flicking the ash
off the end of his cigarette with his little finger; 'but why do you pay
me such a compliment?'

Gollipeck answered the question by asking another.

'Why are you so fond of toxicology?' he said, abruptly, shuffling his
feet in the long dry grass in which they were now walking in order to
rub the dust off his ungainly, ill-blacked shoes.

Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

'To pass the time,' he said, carelessly, 'that is all; even office work,
exciting as it is, becomes wearisome, so I must take up some subject to
amuse myself.'

'Curious taste for a young man,' remarked the doctor, dryly.

'Nature,' said M. Vandeloup, 'does not form men all on the same pattern,
and my taste for toxicology has at least the charm of novelty.'

Gollipeck looked at the young man again in a sharp manner.

'I hope you'll enjoy the book,' he said, abruptly, and vanished into the
house.

When he was gone, the mocking smile so habitual to Vandeloup's
countenance faded away, and his face assumed a thoughtful expression. He
opened the book, and turned over the leaves rapidly, but without finding
what he was in search of. With an uneasy laugh he shut the volume with a
snap, and put it under his arm again.

'He's an enigma,' he thought, referring to the doctor; 'but he can't
suspect anything. The case may be in this book, but I doubt if even this
man with the barbarous name can connect Gaston Vandeloup, of Ballarat,
with Octave Braulard, of Paris.'

His face reassumed its usual gay look, and throwing away the half-smoked
cigarette, he walked into the house and found Madame Midas seated in her
arm-chair near the window looking pale and ill, while Archie was walking
up and down in an excited manner, and talking volubly in broad Scotch.
As to Dr Gollipeck, that eccentric individual was standing in front of
the fire, looking even more dilapidated than usual, and drying his red
bandanna handkerchief in an abstract manner. Selina was in another room
getting a drink for Madame, and as Vandeloup entered she came back with
it.

'Good day, Madame,' said the Frenchman, advancing to the table, and
putting his hat and the book down on it. 'How are you today?'

'Better, much better, thank you,' said Madame, with a faint smile; 'the
doctor assures me I shall be quite well in a week.'

'With perfect rest and quiet, of course,' interposed Gollipeck, sitting
down and spreading his handkerchief over his knees.

'Which Madame does not seem likely to get,' observed Vandeloup, dryly,
with a glance at McIntosh, who was still pacing up and down the room
with an expression of wrath on his severe face.

'Ou, ay,' said that gentleman, stopping in front of Vandeloup, with a
fine expression of scorn. 'I ken weel 'tis me ye are glowerin' at--div
ye no' ken what's the matter wi' me?'

'Not being in your confidence,' replied Gaston, smoothly, taking a seat,
'I can hardly say that I do.'

'It's just that Peter o' yours,' said Archie, with a snort; 'a puir
weecked unbaptised child o' Satan.'

'Archie!' interposed Madame, with some severity.

'Your pardon's begged, mem,' said Archie, sourly turning to her; 'but as
for that Peter body, the Lord keep me tongue fra' swearin', an' my hand
from itching to gie him ain on the lug, when I think o' him.'

'What's he been doing?' asked Vandeloup, coolly. 'I am quite prepared to
hear anything about him in his present state.'

'It's just this,' burst forth Archie, wrathfully. 'I went intil the toun
to the hotel, to tell the body he must come back tae the mine, and I
find him no in a fit state for a Christian to speak to.'

'Therefore,' interposed Vandeloup, in his even voice, without lifting
his eyes, 'it was a pity you did speak to him.'

'I gang t' the room,' went on Archie excitedly, without paying any
attention to Vandeloup's remark, 'an' the deil flew on me wi' a dirk,
and wud hae split my weasand, but I hed the sense to bang the door to,
and turn the key in the lock. D'y ca' that conduct for a ceevilized
body?'

'The fact is, M. Vandeloup,' said Madame, quietly, 'Archie is so annoyed
at this conduct that he does not want Lemaire to come back to work.'

'Ma certie, I should just think so,' cried McIntosh, rubbing his head
with his handkerchief. 'Fancy an imp of Beelzebub like yon in the bowels
o' the earth. Losh! but it macks my bluid rin cauld when I think o' the
bluidthirsty pagan.'

To Vandeloup, this information was not unpleasant. He was anxious to get
rid of Pierre, who was such an incubus, and now saw that he could send
him away without appearing to wish to get rid of him. But as he was a
diplomatic young man he did not allow his satisfaction to appear on his
face.

'Aren't you rather hard on him?' he said, coolly, leaning back in his
chair; 'he is simply drunk, and will be all right soon.'

'I tell ye I'll no have him back,' said Archie, firmly; 'he's ain o'
they foreign bodies full of revolutions an' confusion o' tongues, and
I'd no feel safe i' the mine if I kenned that deil was doon below wi'
his dirk.'

'I really think he ought to go,' said Madame, looking rather anxiously
at Vandeloup, 'unless, M. Vandeloup, you do not want to part with him.'

'Oh, I don't want him,' said Vandeloup, hastily; 'as I told you, he
was only one of the sailors on board the ship I was wrecked in, and he
followed me up here because I was the only friend he had, but now he has
got money--or, at least, his wages must come to a good amount.'

'Forty pounds,' interposed Archie.

'So I think the best thing he can do is to go to Melbourne, and see if
he can get back to France.'

'And you, M. Vandeloup?' asked Dr Gollipeck, who had been listening to
the young Frenchman's remarks with great interest; 'do you not wish to
go to France?'

Vandeloup rose coolly from his chair, and, picking up his book and hat,
turned to the doctor.

'My dear Monsieur,' he said, leaning up against the wall in a graceful
manner, 'I left France to see the world, so until I have seen it I don't
think it would be worthwhile to return.'

'Never go back when you have once put your hand to the plough,' observed
Selina, opportunely, upon which Vandeloup bowed to her.

'Mademoiselle,' he said, quietly, with a charming smile, 'has put the
matter into the shell of a nut; Australia is my plough, and I do not
take my hand away until I have finished with it.'

'But that deil o' a Peter,' said Archie, impatiently.

'If you will permit me, Madame,' said Vandeloup, 'I will write out a
cheque for the amount of money due to him, and you will sign it. I will
go into Ballarat to-morrow, and get him away to Melbourne. I propose
to buy him a box and some clothes, as he certainly is not capable of
getting them himself.'

'You have a kind heart, M. Vandeloup,' said Madame, as she assented with
a nod.

A stifled laugh came from the Doctor, but as he was such an extremely
eccentric individual no one minded him.

'Come, Monsieur,' said Vandeloup, going to the door, 'let us be off
to the office and see how much is due to my friend,' and with a bow to
Madame, he went out.

'A braw sort o' freend,' muttered Archie, as he followed.

'Quite good enough for him,' retorted Dr Gollipeck, who overheard him.

Archie looked at him approvingly, nodded his head, and went out after
the Frenchman, but Madame, being a woman and curious, asked the doctor
what he meant.

His reply was peculiar.

'Our friend,' he said, putting his handkerchief in his pocket and
seizing his greasy old hat, 'our friend believes in the greatest
number.'

'And what is the greatest number?' asked Madame, innocently.

'Number one,' retorted the Doctor, and took his leave abruptly, leaving
two buttons and several pins on the floor as traces of his visit.



CHAPTER XVII

THE BEST OF FRIENDS MUST PART


Union is strength, and if Dr Gollipeck had only met Slivers and revealed
his true opinion of Vandeloup to him, no doubt that clever young man
would have found himself somewhat embarrassed, as a great deal of a
man's past history can be found out by the simple plan of putting two
and two together. Fortunately, however, for Gaston, these two gentlemen
never met, and Gollipeck came to the conclusion that he could see
nothing to blame in Vandeloup's conduct, though he certainly mistrusted
him, and determined mentally to keep an eye on his movements. What led
him to be suspicious was the curious resemblance the appearance of this
young man had to that of a criminal described in the 'Les Empoisonneurs
d'Aujourd'hui' as having been transported to New Caledonia for the crime
of poisoning his mistress. Everything, however, was vague and uncertain;
so Dr Gollipeck, when he arrived home, came to the above-named
conclusion that he would watch Vandeloup, and then, dismissing him from
his mind, went to work on his favourite subject.

Meanwhile, M. Vandeloup slept the sleep of the just, and next morning,
after making his inquiries after the health of Madame Midas--a thing
he never neglected to do--he went into Ballarat in search of Pierre.
On arriving at the Wattle Tree Hotel he was received by Miss Twexby in
dignified silence, for that astute damsel was beginning to regard the
fascinating Frenchman as a young man who talked a great deal and meant
nothing.

He was audacious enough to win her virgin heart and then break it, so
Miss Twexby thought the wisest thing would be to keep him at a distance.
So Vandeloup's bright smiles and merry jokes failed to call forth any
response from the fair Martha, who sat silently in the bar, looking like
a crabbed sphinx.

'Is my friend Pierre in?' asked Vandeloup, leaning across the counter,
and looking lovingly at Miss Twexby.

That lady intimated coldly that he was in, and had been for the last two
weeks; also that she was sick of him, and she'd thank M. Vandeloup to
clear him out--all of which amused Vandeloup mightily, though he still
continued to smile coolly on the sour-faced damsel before him.

'Would you mind going and telling him I want to see him?' he asked,
lounging to the door.

'Me!' shrieked Martha, in a shrill voice, shooting up from behind the
counter like an infuriated jack-in-the-box. 'No, I shan't. Why, the last
time I saw him he nearly cut me like a ham sandwich with that knife of
his. I am not,' pursued Miss Twexby, furiously, 'a loaf of bread to be
cut, neither am I a pin-cushion to have things stuck into me; so if you
want to be a corpse, you'd better go up yourself.'

'I hardly think he'll touch me,' replied Vandeloup, coolly, going
towards the door which led to Pierre's bedroom. 'You've had a lot of
trouble with him, I'm afraid; but he's going down to Melbourne tonight,
so it will be all right.'

'And the bill?' queried Miss Twexby, anxiously.

'I will pay it,' said Vandeloup, at which she was going to say he was
very generous, but suppressed the compliment when he added, 'out of his
own money.'

Gaston, however, failed to persuade Pierre to accompany him round to buy
an outfit. For the dumb man lay on his bed, and obstinately refused to
move out of the room. He, however, acquiesced sullenly when his friend
told him he was going to Melbourne, so Vandeloup left the room, having
first secured Pierre's knife, and locked the door after him. He gave
the knife to Miss Twexby, with injunctions to her to keep it safe, then
sallied forth to buy his shipwrecked friend a box and some clothes.

He spent about ten pounds in buying an outfit for the dumb man, hired a
cab to call at the 'Wattle Tree' Hotel at seven o'clock to take the box
and its owner to the station. And then feeling he had done his duty
and deserved some recompense, he had a nice little luncheon and a small
bottle of wine for which he paid out of Pierre's money. When he finished
he bought a choice cigar, had a glass of Chartreuse, and after resting
in the commercial room for a time he went out for a walk, intending to
call on Slivers and Dr Gollipeck, and in fact do anything to kill time
until it would be necessary for him to go to Pierre and take him to the
railway station.

He walked slowly up Sturt Street, and as the afternoon was so warm,
thought he would go up to Lake Wendouree, which is at the top of
the town, and see if it was any cooler by the water. The day was
oppressively hot, but not with the bright, cheery warmth of a summer's
day, for the sun was hidden behind great masses of angry-looking clouds,
and it seemed as if a thunderstorm would soon break over the city. Even
Vandeloup, full of life and animation as he was, felt weighed down by
the heaviness of the atmosphere, and feeling quite exhausted when he
arrived at the lake, he was glad enough to sit down on one of the seats
for a rest.

The lake under the black sky was a dull leaden hue, and as there was
no wind the water was perfectly still. Even the trees all round it were
motionless, as there came no breeze to stir their leaves, and the only
sounds that could be heard were the dull croaking of the frogs amid the
water grasses, and the shrill cries of children playing on the green
turf. Every now and then a steamer would skim across the surface of the
water in an airy manner, looking more like a child's clockwork toy than
anything else, and Vandeloup, when he saw one of these arrive at the
little pier, almost expected to see a man put in a huge key to the
paddle wheels and wind it up again.

On one of the seats Vandeloup espied a little figure in white, and
seeing that it was Kitty, he strolled up to her in a leisurely manner.
She was looking at the ground when he came up, and was prodding holes in
the spongy turf with her umbrella, but glanced up carelessly as he came
near. Then she sprang up with a cry of joy, and throwing her arms around
his neck, she kissed him twice.

'I haven't seen you for ages,' said Kitty, putting her arm in his as
they sat down. 'I just came up here for a week, and did not think I'd
see you.'

'The meeting was quite accidental, I know,' replied Gaston, leaning back
lazily; 'but none the less pleasant on that account.'

'Oh, no,' said Kitty, gravely shaking her head; 'unexpected meetings
are always pleasanter than those arranged, for there's never any
disappointment about them.'

'Oh, that's your experience, is it?' answered her lover, with an amused
smile, pulling out his cigarette case. 'Well, suppose you reward me for
my accidental presence here, and light a cigarette for me.'

Kitty was of course delighted, and took the case while M. Vandeloup
leaned back in the seat, his hands behind his head, and stared
reflectively at the leaden-coloured sky. Kitty took out a cigarette from
the case, placed it between her pretty lips, and having obtained a match
from one of her lover's pockets, proceeded to light it, which was not
done without a great deal of choking and pretty confusion. At length she
managed it, and bending over Gaston, placed it in his mouth, and gave
him a kiss at the same time.

'If pa knew I did this, he'd expire with horror,' she said, sagely
nodding her head.

'Wouldn't be much loss if he did,' replied Vandeloup, lazily, glancing
at her pretty face from under his eyelashes; 'your father has a great
many faults, dear.'

'Oh, "The Elect" think him perfect,' said Kitty, wisely.

'From their point of view, perhaps he is,' returned Gaston, with a faint
sneer; 'but he's not a man given to exuberant mirth.'

'Well, he is rather dismal,' assented Kitty, doubtfully.

'Wouldn't you like to leave him and lead a jollier life?' asked
Vandeloup, artfully, 'in Melbourne, for instance.'

Kitty looked at him half afraid.

'I--I don't know,' she faltered, looking down.

'But I do, Bebe,' whispered Gaston, putting his arm round her waist;
'you would like to come with me.'

'Why? Are you going?' cried Kitty, in dismay.

Vandeloup nodded.

'I think I spoke about this before,' he said, idly brushing some
cigarette ash off his waistcoat.

'Yes,' returned Kitty, 'but I thought you did not mean it.'

'I never say anything I do not mean,' answered Vandeloup, with the ready
lie on his lips in a moment; 'and I have got letters from France with
money, so I am going to leave the Pactolus.'

'And me?' said Kitty, tearfully.

'That depends upon yourself, Bebe,' he said rapidly, pressing her
burning cheek against his own; 'your father would never consent to my
marriage, and I can't take you away from Ballarat without suspicions,
so--'

'Yes?' said Kitty, eagerly, looking at him.

'You must run away,' he whispered, with a caressing smile.

'Alone?'

'For a time, yes,' he answered, throwing away his cigarette;
'listen--next week you must meet me here, and I will give you money to
keep you in Melbourne for some time; then you must leave Ballarat at
once and wait for me at the Buttercup Hotel in Gertrude Street, Carlton;
you understand?'

'Yes,' faltered Kitty, nervously; 'I--I understand.'

'And you will come?' he asked anxiously, looking keenly at her, and
pressing the little hand he held in his own. Just as she was going to
answer, as if warning her of the fatal step she was about to take, a low
roll of thunder broke on their ears, and Kitty shrank back appalled from
her lover's embrace.

'No! no! no!' she almost shrieked, hysterically, trying to tear herself
away from his arms, 'I cannot; God is speaking.'

'Bah!' sneered Vandeloup, with an evil look on his handsome face, 'he
speaks too indistinctly for us to guess what he means; what are you
afraid of? I will join you in Melbourne in two or three weeks, and then
we will be married.'

'But my father,' she whispered, clasping her hot hands convulsively.

'Well, what of him?' asked Vandeloup, coolly; 'he is so wrapped up in
his religion that he will not miss you; he will never find out where you
are in Melbourne, and by the time he does you will be my wife. Come,'
he said, ardently, whispering the temptation in her ear, as if he was
afraid of being heard, 'you must consent; say yes, Bebe; say yes.'

She felt his hot breath on her cheek, and felt rather than saw the
scintillations of his wonderful eyes, which sent a thrill through her;
so, utterly exhausted and worn out by the overpowering nervous force
possessed by this man, she surrendered.

'Yes,' she whispered, clinging to him with dry lips and a beating heart;
'I will come!' Then her overstrained nature gave way, and with a burst
of tears she threw herself on his breast.

Gaston let her sob quietly for some time, satisfied with having gained
his end, and knowing that she would soon recover. At last Kitty grew
calmer, and drying her eyes, she rose to her feet wan and haggard, as if
she was worn out for the want of sleep, and not by any manner of means
looking like a girl who was in love. This appearance was caused by the
revolt of her religious training against doing what she knew was wrong.
In her breast a natural instinct had been fighting against an artificial
one; and as Nature is always stronger than precept, Nature had
conquered.

'My dear Bebe,' said Vandeloup, rising also, and kissing her white
cheek, 'you must go home now, and get a little sleep; it will do you
good.'

'But you?' asked Kitty, in a low voice, as they walked slowly along.

'Oh, I,' said M. Vandeloup, airily; 'I am going to the Wattle Tree Hotel
to see my friend Pierre off to Melbourne.'

Then he exerted himself to amuse Kitty as they walked down to town, and
succeeded so well that by the time they reached Lydiard Street, where
Kitty left him to go up to Black Hill, she was laughing as merrily as
possible. They parted at the railway crossing, and Kitty went gaily up
the white dusty road, while M. Vandeloup strolled leisurely along the
street on his way to the Wattle Tree Hotel.

When he arrived he found that Pierre's box had come, and was placed
outside his door, as no one had been brave enough to venture inside,
although Miss Twexby assured them he was unarmed--showing the knife as a
proof.

Gaston, however, dragged the box into the room, and having made Pierre
dress himself in his new clothes, he packed all the rest in a box,
corded it, and put a ticket on it with his name and destination,
then gave the dumb man the balance of his wages. It was now about six
o'clock, so Vandeloup went down to dinner; then putting Pierre and his
box into the cab, stepped in himself and drove off.

The promise of rain in the afternoon was now fulfilled, and it was
pouring in torrents. The gutters were rivers, and every now and then
through the driving rain came the bluish dart of a lightning flash.

'Bah!' said Vandeloup, with a shiver, as they got out on the station
platform, 'what a devil of a night.'

He made the cab wait for him, and, having got Pierre's ticket, put him
in a second-class carriage and saw that his box was safely placed in the
luggage-van. The station was crowded with people going and others coming
to say goodbye; the rain was beating on the high-arched tin roof, and
the engine at the end of the long train was fretting and fuming like a
living thing impatient to be gone.

'You are now on your own responsibility, my friend,' said Vandeloup to
Pierre, as he stood at the window of the carriage; 'for we must part,
though long together have we been. Perhaps I will see you in Melbourne;
if I do you will find I have not forgotten the past,' and, with a
significant look at the dumb man, Vandeloup lounged slowly away.

The whistle blew shrilly, the last goodbyes were spoken, the guard
shouted 'All aboard for Melbourne,' and shut all the doors, then, with
another shriek and puff of white steam, the train, like a long, lithe
serpent, glided into the rain and darkness with its human freight.

'At last I have rid myself of this dead weight,' said Vandeloup, as he
drove along the wet streets to Craig's Hotel, where he intended to stay
for the night, 'and can now shape my own fortune. Pierre is gone, Bebe
will follow, and now I must look after myself.'



CHAPTER XVIII

M. VANDELOUP IS UNJUSTLY SUSPECTED


'It never rains but it pours' is an excellent proverb, and a very true
one, for it is remarkable how events of a similar nature follow closely
on one another's heels when the first that happened has set the ball
a-rolling. Madame Midas believed to a certain extent in this, and
she half expected that when Pierre went he would be followed by M.
Vandeloup, but she certainly did not think that the disappearance of her
husband would be followed by that of Kitty Marchurst. Yet such was the
case, for Mr Marchurst, not seeing Kitty at family prayers, had sent in
the servant to seek for her, and the scared domestic had returned with
a startled face and a letter for her master. Marchurst read the
tear-blotted little note, in which Kitty said she was going down to
Melbourne to appear on the stage. Crushing it up in his hand, he went
on with family prayers in his usual manner, and after dismissing his
servants for the night, he went up to his daughter's room, and found
that she had left nearly everything behind, only taking a few needful
things with her. Seeing her portrait on the wall he took it down and
placed it in his pocket. Then, searching through her room, he found
some ribbons and lace, a yellow-backed novel, which he handled with the
utmost loathing, and a pair of gloves. Regarding these things as the
instruments of Satan, by which his daughter had been led to destruction,
he carried them downstairs to his dismal study and piled them in the
empty fireplace. Placing his daughter's portrait on top he put a light
to the little pile of frivolities, and saw them slowly burn away. The
novel curled and cracked in the scorching flame, but the filmy lace
vanished like cobwebs, and the gloves crackled and shrank into mere
wisps of black leather. And over all, through the flames, her face,
bright and charming, looked out with laughing lips and merry eyes--so
like her mother's, and yet so unlike in its piquant grace--until that
too fell into the hollow heart of the flames, and burned slowly away
into a small pile of white ashes.

Marchurst, leaving the dead ashes cold and grey in the dark fireplace,
went to his writing table, and falling on his knees he passed the rest
of the night in prayer.

Meanwhile, the man who was the primary cause of all this trouble was
working in the office of the Pactolus claim with a light heart and
cool head. Gaston had really managed to get Kitty away in a very clever
manner, inasmuch as he never appeared publicly to be concerned in it,
but directed the whole business secretly. He had given Kitty sufficient
money to keep her for some months in Melbourne, as he was in doubt when
he could leave the Pactolus without being suspected of being concerned
in her disappearance. He also told her what day to leave, and all that
day stayed at the mine working at his accounts, and afterwards spent the
evening very pleasantly with Madame Midas. Next day McIntosh went into
Ballarat on business, and on returning from the city, where he had heard
all about it--rumour, of course, magnifying the whole affair greatly--he
saw Vandeloup come out of the office, and drew up in the trap beside the
young man.

'Aha, Monsieur,' said Vandeloup, gaily, rolling a cigarette in his
slender fingers, and shooting a keen glance at Archie; 'you have had a
pleasant day.'

'Maybe yes, maybe no,' returned McIntosh, cautiously, fumbling in the
bag; 'there's naething muckle in the toun, but--deil tack the bag,'
he continued, tetchily shaking it. 'I've gotten a letter or so fra'
France.'

'For me?' cried Vandeloup, eagerly, holding out his hands.

'An' for who else would it be?' grumbled Archie, giving the letter to
him--a thin, foreign looking envelope with the Parisian post mark on it;
'did ye think it was for that black-avised freend o' yours?'

'Hardly!' returned Vandeloup, glancing at the letter with satisfaction,
and putting it in his pocket. 'Pierre couldn't write himself, and I
doubt very much if he had any friends who could--not that I knew his
friends,' he said, hastily catching sight of McIntosh's severe face bent
inquiringly on him, 'but like always draws to like.'

Archie's only answer to this was a grunt.

'Are ye no gangin' tae read yon?' he asked sourly.

'Not at present,' replied Vandeloup, blowing a thin wreath of blue
smoke, 'by-and-bye will do. Scandal and oysters should both be fresh to
be enjoyable, but letters--ah, bah,' with a shrug, 'they can wait. Come,
tell me the news; anything going on?'

'Weel,' said McIntosh, with great gusto, deliberately flicking a fly off
the horse's back with a whip, 'she's ta'en the bit intil her mouth and
gane wrang, as I said she would.'

'To what special "she" are you alluding to?' asked Vandeloup, lazily
smoothing his moustache; 'so many of them go wrong, you see, one likes
to be particular. The lady's name is--?'

'Katherine Marchurst, no less,' burst forth Archie, in triumph; 'she's
rin awa' to be a play-actor.'

'What? that child?' said Vandeloup, with an admirable expression of
surprise; 'nonsense! It cannot be true.'

'D'ye think I would tell a lee?' said Archie, wrathfully, glowering
down on the tall figure pacing leisurely along. 'God forbid that my lips
should fa' tae sic iniquity. It's true, I tell ye; the lass has rin awa'
an' left her faither--a godly mon, tho' I'm no of his way of thinkin--to
curse the day he had sic a bairn born until him. Ah, 'tis sorrow and
dule she hath brought tae his roof tree, an' sorrow and dule wull be her
portion at the hands o' strangers,' and with this scriptural ending
Mr McIntosh sharply whipped up Rory, and went on towards the stable,
leaving Vandeloup standing in the road.

'I don't think he suspects, at all events,' thought that young man,
complacently. 'As to Madame Midas--pouf! I can settle her suspicions
easily; a little virtuous indignation is most effective as a blind;'
and M. Vandeloup, with a gay laugh, strolled on towards the house in the
gathering twilight.

Suddenly he recollected the letter, which had escaped his thoughts, in
his desire to see how McIntosh would take the disappearance of Kitty,
so as there was still light to see, he leaned up against a fence, and,
having lighted another cigarette, read it through carefully. It appeared
to afford him considerable satisfaction, and he smiled as he put it in
his pocket again.

'It seems pretty well forgotten, this trouble about Adele,' he said,
musingly, as he resumed his saunter; 'I might be able to go back again
in a few years, if not to Paris at least to Europe--one can be very
happy in Monaco or Vienna, and run no risk of being found out; and,
after all,' he muttered, thoughtfully, fingering his moustache, 'why
not to Paris? The Republic has lasted too long already. Sooner or later
there will be a change of Government, and then I can go back a free man,
with a fortune of Australian gold. Emperor, King, or President, it's all
the same to me, as long as I am left alone.'

He walked on slowly, thinking deeply all the time, and when he arrived
at the door of Mrs Villiers' house, this clever young man, with his
accustomed promptitude and decision, had settled what he was going to
do.

'Up to a certain point, of course,' he said aloud, following his
thoughts, 'after that, chance must decide.'

Madame Midas was very much grieved at the news of Kitty's Escapade,
particularly as she could not see what motive she had for running away,
and, moreover, trembled to think of the temptations the innocent girl
would be exposed to in the metropolis. After tea, when Archie had gone
outside to smoke his pipe, and Selina was busy in the kitchen washing
the dishes, she spoke to Vandeloup on the subject. The young Frenchman
was seated at the piano in the darkness, striking a few random chords,
while Madame was by the fire in the arm-chair. It was quite dark, with
only the rosy glow of the fire shining through the room. Mrs Villiers
felt uneasy; was it likely that Vandeloup could have any connection with
Kitty's disappearance? Impossible! he had given her his word of honour,
and yet--it was very strange. Mrs Villiers was not, by any means,
a timid woman, so she determined to ask Gaston right out, and get a
decided answer from him, so as to set her mind at rest.

'M. Vandeloup,' she said, in her clear voice, 'will you kindly come here
a moment?

'Certainly, Madame,' said Gaston, rising with alacrity from the piano,
and coming to the fireside; 'is there anything I can do?'

'You have heard of Miss Marchurst's disappearance?' she asked, looking
up at him.

Vandeloup leaned his elbow on the mantelpiece, and looked down into the
fire, so that the full blaze of it could strike his face. He knew Madame
Midas prided herself on being a reader of character, and knowing he
could command his features admirably, he thought it would be politic to
let her see his face, and satisfy herself as to his innocence.

'Yes, Madame,' he answered, in his calm, even tones, looking down
inquiringly at the statuesque face of the woman addressing him;
'Monsieur,' nodding towards the door, 'told me, but I did not think it
true.'

'I'm afraid it is,' sighed Madame, shaking her head. 'She is going on
the stage, and her father will never forgive her.'

'Surely, Madame--' began Vandeloup, eagerly.

'No,' she replied, decisively, 'he is not a hard man, but his way of
looking at things through his peculiar religious ideas has warped his
judgment--he will make no attempt to save her, and God knows what she
will come to.'

'There are good women on the stage,' said Vandeloup, at a loss for a
reply.

'Certainly,' returned Madame, calmly, 'there are black and white sheep
in every flock, but Kitty is so young and inexperienced, that she may
become the prey of the first handsome scoundrel she meets.'

Madame had intuitively guessed the whole situation, and Vandeloup could
not help admiring her cleverness. Still his face remained the same, and
his voice was as steady as ever as he answered--

'It is much to be regretted; but still we must hope for the best.'

Was he guilty? Madame could not make up her mind, so determined to speak
boldly.

'Do you remember that day I introduced her to you?'

Vandeloup bowed.

'And you gave me your word of honour you would not try to turn her
head,' pursued Madame, looking at him; 'have you kept your word?'

'Madame,' said Vandeloup, gravely, 'I give you my word of honour that
I have always treated Mlle Kitty as a child and your friend. I did not
know that she had gone until I was told, and whatever happens to her, I
can safely say that it was not Gaston Vandeloup's fault.'

An admirable actor this man, not a feature of his face moved, not a
single deviation from the calmness of his speech--not a quickening of
the pulse, nor the rush of betraying blood to his fair face--no! Madame
withdrew her eyes quite satisfied, M. Vandeloup was the soul of honour
and was innocent of Kitty's disgrace.

'Thank God!' she said, reverently, as she looked away, for she would
have been bitterly disappointed to have found her kindness to this man
repaid by base treachery towards her friend; 'I cannot tell you how
relieved I feel.'

M. Vandeloup withdrew his face into the darkness, and smiled in a
devilish manner to himself. How these women believed--was there any lie
too big for the sex to swallow? Evidently not--at least, so he thought.
But now that Kitty was disposed of, he had to attend to his own private
affairs, and put his hand in his pocket for the letter.

'I wanted to speak to you on business, Madame,' he said, taking out the
letter; 'the long-expected has come at last.'

'You have heard from Paris?' asked Madame, in an eager voice.

'I have,' answered the Frenchman, calmly; 'I have now the letter in my
hand, and as soon as Mlle Selina brings in the lights I will show it to
you.'

At this moment, as if in answer to his request, Selina appeared with the
lamp, which she had lighted in the kitchen and now brought in to place
on the table. When she did so, and had retired again, Vandeloup placed
his letter in Madame's hand, and asked her to read it.

'Oh, no, Monsieur,' said Mrs Villiers, offering it back, 'I do not wish
to read your private correspondence.'

Vandeloup had calculated on this, for, as a matter of fact, there was a
good deal of private matter in the letter, particularly referring to his
trip to New Caledonia, which he would not have allowed her to see. But
he knew it would inspire her with confidence in him if he placed it
wholly in her hands, and resolved to boldly venture to do so. The result
was as he guessed; so, with a smile, he took it back again.

'There is nothing private in it, Madame,' he said, opening the letter;
'I wanted you to see that I had not misrepresented myself--it is from my
family lawyer, and he has sent me out a remittance of money, also some
letters of introduction to my consul in Melbourne and others; in fact,'
said M. Vandeloup, with a charming smile, putting the letter in his
pocket, 'it places me in my rightful position, and I shall assume it as
soon as I have your permission.'

'But why my permission ?' asked Madame, with a faint smile, already
regretting bitterly that she was going to lose her pleasant companion.

'Madame,' said Vandeloup, impressively, bending forward, 'in the words
of the Bible--when I was hungry you gave me food; when I was naked you
gave me raiment. You took me on, Madame, an unknown waif, without money,
friends, or a character; you believed in me when no one else did; you
have been my guardian angel: and do you think that I can forget your
goodness to me for the last six months? No! Madame,' rising, 'I have a
heart, and while I live that heart will ever remember you with gratitude
and love;' and bending forward he took her hand and kissed it gallantly.

'You think too much of what I have done,' said Madame, who was,
nevertheless, pleased at this display of emotion, albeit, according to
her English ideas, it seemed to savour too much of the footlights. 'I
only did to you what I would do to all men. I am glad, in this instance,
to find my confidence has not been misplaced; when do you think of
leaving us?'

'In about two or three weeks,' answered Vandeloup, carelessly, 'but not
till you find another clerk; besides, Madame, do not think you have
lost sight of me for ever; I will go down to Melbourne, settle all my
affairs, and come up and see you again.'

'So you say,' replied Mrs Villiers, sceptically smiling.

'Well,' replied M. Vandeloup, with a shrug, 'we will see--at all
events, gratitude is such a rare virtue that there is decided novelty in
possessing it.'

'M. Vandeloup,' said Madame, suddenly, after they had been chatting for
a few moments, 'one thing you must do for me in Melbourne.'

'I will do anything you wish,' said Vandeloup, gravely.

'Then,' said Madame, earnestly, rising and looking him in the face, 'you
must find Kitty, and send her back to me.'

'Madame,' said Vandeloup, solemnly, 'it will be the purpose of my life
to restore her to your arms.'



CHAPTER XIX

THE DEVIL'S LEAD


There was great dismay at the Pactolus Mine when it became known that
Vandeloup was going to leave. During his short stay he had made himself
extremely popular with the men, as he always had a bright smile and a
kind word for everyone, so they all felt like losing a personal friend.
The only two who were unfeigningly glad at Vandeloup's departure were
Selina and McIntosh, for these two faithful hearts had seen with dismay
the influence the Frenchman was gradually gaining over Madame Midas.
As long as Villiers lived they felt safe, but now that he had so
mysteriously disappeared, and was to all appearances dead, they dreaded
lest their mistress, in a moment of infatuation, should marry her clerk.
They need not, however, have been afraid, for much as Mrs Villiers liked
the young Frenchman, such an idea had never entered her head, and she
was far too clever a woman ever to tempt matrimony a second time, seeing
how dearly it had cost her.

Madame Midas had made great efforts to find Kitty, but without success;
and, in spite of all inquiries and advertisements in the papers, nothing
could be discovered regarding the missing girl.

At last the time drew near for Vandeloup's departure, when all the
sensation of Kitty's escapade and Villiers' disappearance was swallowed
up in a new event, which filled Ballarat with wonder. It began in
a whisper, and grew into such a roar of astonishment that not only
Ballarat, but all Victoria, knew that the far-famed Devil's Lead
had been discovered in the Pactolus claim. Yes, after years of weary
waiting, after money had been swallowed up in apparently useless work,
after sceptics had sneered and friends laughed, Madame Midas obtained
her reward. The Devil's Lead was discovered, and she was now a
millionaire.

For some time past McIntosh had not been satisfied with the character of
the ground in which he had been working, so abandoning the shaft he was
then in, he had opened up another gallery to the west, at right angles
from the place where the famous nugget had been found. The wash was poor
at first, but McIntosh persevered, having an instinct that he was on the
right track. A few weeks' work proved that he was right, for the wash
soon became richer; and as they went farther on towards the west,
following the gutter, there was no doubt that the long-lost Devil's Lead
had been struck. The regular return had formerly been five ounces to the
machine, but now the washing up invariably gave twenty ounces, and small
nuggets of water-worn gold were continually found in the three machines.
The main drive following the lead still continued dipping westward, and
McIntosh now commenced blocking and putting in side galleries, expecting
when this was done he would thoroughly prove the Devil's Lead, for he
was quite satisfied he was on it. Even now the yield was three hundred
and sixty ounces a week, and after deducting working expenses, this gave
Madame Midas a weekly income of one thousand one hundred pounds, so she
now began to see what a wealthy woman she was likely to be. Everyone
unfeigningly rejoiced at her good fortune, and said that she deserved
it. Many thought that now she was so rich Villiers would come back
again, but he did not put in an appearance, and it was generally
concluded he had left the colony.

Vandeloup congratulated Madame Midas on her luck when he was going away,
and privately determined that he would not lose sight of her, as, being
a wealthy woman, and having a liking for him, she would be of great use.
He took his farewell gracefully, and went away, carrying the good wishes
of all the miners; but McIntosh and Selina, still holding to their
former opinion, were secretly pleased at his departure. Madame Midas
made him a present of a hundred pounds, and, though he refused it,
saying that he had money from France, she asked him as a personal favour
to take it; so M. Vandeloup, always gallant to ladies, could not refuse.
He went in to Ballarat, and put up at the Wattle Tree Hotel, intending
to start for the metropolis next morning; but on his way, in order to
prepare Kitty for his coming, sent a telegram for her, telling her the
train he would arrive by, in order that she might be at the station to
meet him.

After his dinner he suddenly recollected that he still had the volume
which Dr Gollipeck had lent him, so, calling a cab, he drove to the
residence of that eccentric individual to return it.

When the servant announced M. Vandeloup, she pushed him in and suddenly
closed the door after her, as though she was afraid of some of the
doctor's ideas getting away.

'Good evening, doctor,' said Vandeloup, laying the book down on the
table at which Gollipeck was seated; 'I've come to return you this and
say good-bye.'

'Aha, going away?' asked Gollipeck, leaning back in his chair, and
looked sharply at the young man through his spectacles, 'right--see the
world--you're clever--won't go far wrong--no!'

'It doesn't matter much if I do,' replied Vandeloup, shrugging his
shoulders, and taking a chair, 'nobody will bother much about me.'

'Eh!' queried the doctor, sharply, sitting up.
'Paris--friends--relations.'

'My only relation is an aunt with a large family; she's got quite enough
to do looking after them, without bothering about me,' retorted M.
Vandeloup; 'as to friends--I haven't got one.'

'Oh!' from Gollipeck, with a cynical smile, 'I see; let us
say--acquaintances.'

'Won't make any difference,' replied Vandeloup, airily; 'I turned my
acquaintances into friends long ago, and then borrowed money off
them; result: my social circle is nil. Friends,' went on M. Vandeloup,
reflectively, 'are excellent as friends, but damnable as bankers.'

Gollipeck chuckled, and rubbed his hands, for this cynicism pleased him.
Suddenly his eye caught the book which the young man had returned.

'You read this?' he said, laying his hand on it; 'good, eh?'

'Very good, indeed,' returned M. Vandeloup, smoothly; 'so kind of you to
have lent it to me--all those cases quoted were known to me.'

'The case of Adele Blondet, for instance, eh?' asked the old man
sharply.

'Yes, I was present at the trial,' replied Vandeloup, quietly; 'the
prisoner Octave Braulard was convicted, condemned to death, reprieved,
and sent to New Caledonia.'

'Where he now is,' said Gollipeck, quickly, looking at him.

'I presume so,' replied Vandeloup, lazily. 'After the trial I never
bothered my head about him.'

'He poisoned his mistress, Adele Blondet,' said the doctor.

'Yes,' answered Vandeloup, leaning forward and looking at Gollipeck,
'he found she was in love with an Englishman, and poisoned her--you will
find it all in the book.'

'It does not mention the Englishman,' said the doctor, thoughtfully
tapping the table with his hand.

'Nevertheless he was implicated in it, but went away from Paris the day
Braulard was arrested,' answered Vandeloup. 'The police tried to find
him, but could not; if they had, it might have made some difference to
the prisoner.'

'And the name of this Englishman?'

'Let me see,' said Vandeloup, looking up reflectively; 'I almost forget
it--Kestroke or Kestrike, some name like that. He must have been a very
clever man to have escaped the French police.'

'Ah, hum!' said the doctor, rubbing his nose, 'very interesting indeed;
strange case!'

'Very,' assented M. Vandeloup, as he arose to go, 'I must say good-bye
now, doctor; but I am coming up to Ballarat on a visit shortly.'

'Ah, hum! of course,' replied Gollipeck, also rising, 'and we can have
another talk over this book.'

'That or any book you like,' said Vandeloup, with a glance of surprise;
'but I don't see why you are so much taken up with that volume; it is
not a work of genius.'

'Well, no,' answered Gollipeck, looking at him; 'still, it contains some
excellent cases of modern poisoning.'

'So I saw when I read it,' returned Vandeloup, indifferently.
'Good-bye,' holding out his hand, 'or rather I should say au revoir.'

'Wine?' queried the Doctor, hospitably.

Vandeloup shook his head, and walked out of the room with a gay smile,
humming a tune. He strolled slowly down Lydiard Street, turning over in
his mind what the doctor had said to him.

'He is suspicious,' muttered the young man to himself, thoughtfully,
'although he has nothing to go on in connecting me with the case. Should
I use the poison here I must be careful, for that man will be my worst
enemy.'

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turning round saw Barty Jarper
before him. That fashionable young man was in evening dress, and
represented such an extent of shirt front and white waistcoat,--not to
mention a tall collar, on the top of which his little head was perched
like a cocoanut on a stick,--that he was positively resplendent.

'Where are you going to?' asked the gorgeous Barty, smoothing his
incipient moustache.

'Well, I really don't know,' answered Vandeloup, lighting a cigarette.
'I am leaving for Melbourne to-morrow morning, but to-night I have
nothing to do. You, I see, are engaged,' with a glance at the evening
dress.

'Yes,' returned Barty, in a bored voice; 'musical party on,--they want
me to sing.'

Vandeloup had heard Barty's vocal performance, and could not forbear
a smile as he thought of the young man's three songs with the same
accompaniment to each. Suppressing, however, his inclination to laugh,
he asked Barty to have a drink, which invitation was promptly accepted,
and they walked in search of a hotel. On the way, they passed Slivers'
house, and here Vandeloup paused.

'This was the first house I entered here,' he said to Barty, 'and I must
go in and say good-bye to my one-armed friend with the cockatoo.'

Mr Jarper, however, drew back.

'I don't like him,' he said bluntly, 'he's an old devil.'

'Oh, it's always as well to accustom oneself to the society of devils,'
retorted Vandeloup, coolly, 'we may have to live with them constantly
some day.'

Barty laughed at this, and putting his arm in that of Vandeloup's, they
went in.

Slivers' door stood ajar in its usual hospitable manner, but all within
was dark.

'He must be out,' said Barty, as they stood in the dark passage.

'No,' replied Vandeloup, feeling for a match, 'someone is talking in the
office.'

'It's that parrot,' said Barty, with a laugh, as they heard Billy
rapidly running over his vocabulary; 'let's go in.'

He pushed open the door, and was about to step into the room, when
catching sight of something on the floor, he recoiled with a cry, and
caught Vandeloup by the arm.

'What's the matter?' asked the Frenchman, hastily.

'He's dead,' returned Barty, with a sort of gasp; 'see, he's lying on
the floor dead!'

And so he was! The oldest inhabitant of Ballarat had joined the great
majority, and, as it was afterwards discovered, his death was caused by
the breaking of a blood-vessel. The cause of it was not clear, but the
fact was, that hearing of the discovery of the Devil's Lead, and knowing
that it was lost to him for ever, Slivers had fallen into such a fit of
rage, that he burst a blood-vessel and died in his office with no one by
him.

The light of the street lamp shone through the dusty windows into the
dark room, and in the centre of the yellow splash lay the dead man,
with his one eye wide open, staring at the ceiling, while perched on his
wooden leg, which was sticking straight out, sat the parrot, swearing.
It was a most repulsive sight, and Barty, with a shudder of disgust,
tried to drag his companion away, but M. Vandeloup refused to go, and
searched his pockets for a match to see more clearly what the body was
like.

'Pickles,' cried Billy, from his perch on the dead man's wooden leg;
'oh, my precious mother,--devil take him.'

'My faith,' said M. Vandeloup, striking a match, 'the devil has taken
him,' and leaving Barty shivering and trembling at the door, he advanced
into the room and stood looking at the body. Billy at his approach
hopped off the leg and waddled up to the dead man's shoulder, where
he sat cursing volubly, and every now and then going into shrieks of
demoniacal laughter. Barty closed his ears to the devilish mirth, and
saw M. Vandeloup standing over the corpse, with the faint light of the
match flickering in his hand.

'Do you know what this is?' he asked, turning to Barty.

The other looked at him inquiringly.

'It is the comedy of death,' said the Frenchman, throwing down the match
and going to the door.

They both went out to seek assistance, and left the dark room with the
dead man lying in the pool of yellow light, and the parrot perched on
the body, muttering to itself. It was a strange mingling of the horrible
and grotesque, and the whole scene was hit off in the phrase applied to
it by Vandeloup. It was, indeed, 'The Comedy of Death'!



PART II


CHAPTER I

TEMPUS FUGIT


A whole year had elapsed since the arrival of Vandeloup in Melbourne,
and during that time many things had happened. Unfortunately, in spite
of his knowledge of human nature, and the fact that he started with a
good sum of money, Gaston had not made his fortune. This was due to the
fact that he was indisposed to work when his banking account was at all
decent; so he had lived like a prince on his capital, and trusted to his
luck furnishing him with more when it was done.

Kitty had joined him in Melbourne as arranged, and Gaston had
established her in a place in Richmond. It was not a regular
boarding-house, but the lady who owned it, Mrs Pulchop by name, was in
the habit of letting apartments on reasonable terms; so Vandeloup had
taken up his abode there with Kitty, who passed as his wife.

But though he paid her all the deference and respect due to a wife, and
though she wore a marriage ring, yet, as a matter of fact, they were not
married. Kitty had implored her lover to have the ceremony performed as
soon as he joined her; but as the idea was not to M. Vandeloup's taste,
he had put her off, laughingly at first, then afterwards, when he began
to weary of her, he said he could not marry her for at least a year. The
reason he assigned for this was the convenient one of family affairs;
but, in reality, he foresaw he would get tired of her in that time,
and did not want to tie himself so that he could not leave her when he
wished. At first, the girl had rebelled against this delay, for she was
strongly biased by her religious training, and looked with horror on the
state of wickedness in which she was living. But Gaston laughed at her
scruples, and as time went on, her finer feelings became blunted, and
she accepted the position to which she was reduced in an apathetic
manner.

Sometimes she had wild thoughts of running away, but she still loved him
too well to do so; and besides, there was no one to whom she could go,
as she well knew her father would refuse to receive her. The anomalous
position which she occupied, however, had an effect on her spirits, and
from being a bright and happy girl, she became irritable and fretful.
She refused to go out anywhere, and when she went into town, either
avoided the principal streets, or wore a heavy veil, so afraid was she
of being recognised by anyone from Ballarat and questioned as to how she
lived. All this was very disagreeable to M. Vandeloup, who had a horror
of being bored, and not finding Kitty's society pleasant enough, he
gradually ceased to care for her, and was now only watching for an
opportunity to get rid of her without any trouble. He was a member of
the Bachelor's Club, a society of young men which had a bad reputation
in Melbourne, and finding Kitty was so lachrymose, he took a room at the
Club, and began to stay away four or five days at a time. So Kitty
was left to herself, and grew sad and tearful, as she reflected on the
consequence of her fatal passion for this man. Mrs Pulchop was vastly
indignant at Vandeloup neglecting his wife, for, of course, she never
thought she was anything else to the young man, and did all in her
power to cheer the girl up, which, however, was not much, as Mrs Pulchop
herself was decidedly of a funereal disposition.

Meanwhile, Gaston was leading a very gay life in Melbourne. His good
looks and clever tongue had made him a lot of friends, and he was very
popular both in drawing-room and club. The men voted him a jolly sort
of fellow and a regular swagger man, while the ladies said that he
was heavenly; for, true to his former tactics, Vandeloup always made
particular friends of women, selecting, of course, those whom he thought
would be likely to be of use to him. Being such a favourite entailed
going out a great deal, and as no one can pose as a man of fashion
without money, M. Vandeloup soon found that his capital was rapidly
melting away. He then went in for gambling, and the members of The
Bachelors, being nearly all rich young men, Gaston's dexterity at ecarte
and baccarat was very useful to him, and considerably augmented his
income.

Still, card-playing is a somewhat precarious source from which to derive
an income, so Vandeloup soon found himself pretty hard up, and was at
his wit's end how to raise money. His gay life cost him a good deal,
and Kitty, of course, was a source of expense, although, poor girl, she
never went anywhere; but there was a secret drain on his purse of which
no one ever dreamed. This was none other than Pierre Lemaire, who,
having spent all the money he got at the Pactolus, came and worried
Vandeloup for more. That astute young man would willingly have refused
him, but, unfortunately, Pierre knew too much of his past life for him
to do so, therefore he had to submit to the dumb man's extortions with
the best grace he could. So what with Kitty's changed manner, Pierre
wanting money, and his own lack of coin, M. Vandeloup was in anything
but an enviable position, and began to think it was time his luck--if he
ever had any--should step in. He thought of running up to Ballarat and
seeing Madame Midas, whom he knew would lend him some money, but he had
a certain idea in his head with regard to that lady, so wished to retain
her good opinion, and determined not to apply to her until all other
plans for obtaining money failed. Meanwhile, he went everywhere, was
universally admired and petted, and no one who saw him in society with
his bright smile and nonchalant manner, would have imagined what crafty
schemes there were in that handsome head.

Madame Midas was still up at Ballarat and occupying the same cottage,
although she was now so wealthy she could have inhabited a palace, had
she been so minded. But prosperity had not spoiled Mrs Villiers. She
still managed her own affairs, and did a great deal of good with her
money,--expending large sums for charitable purposes, because she really
wished to do good, and not, like so many rich people, for the purpose of
advertising herself.

The Pactolus was now a perfect fortune, and Madame Midas being the sole
owner, her wealth was thought to be enormous, as every month a fresh
deluge of gold rolled into her coffers from the inexhaustible Devil's
Lead. McIntosh, of course, still managed the mine, and took great pride
in his success, especially after so many people had scoffed at it.

Various other mines had started in the vicinity, and had been floated on
the Melbourne market, where they kept rising and falling in unison with
the monthly yield of the Pactolus. The Devil's Lead was rather unequal,
as sometimes the ground would be rich, while another time it would turn
out comparatively poor. People said it was patchy, and some day would
run out altogether, but it did not show any signs of exhaustion,
and even if it had, Madame Midas was now so wealthy that it mattered
comparatively little. When the monthly yield was small, the mines round
about would fall in the share market to a few shillings, but if it was
large, they would rush up again to as many pounds, so that the brokers
managed to do pretty well out of the fluctuations of the stock.

One thing astonished Madame Midas very much, and that was the continuous
absence of her husband. She did not believe he was dead, and fully
expected to see him turn up some time; but as the months passed on, and
he did not appear, she became uneasy. The idea of his lurking round was
a constant nightmare to her, and at last she placed the matter in the
hands of the police, with instructions to try to ascertain what became
of him.

The police did everything in their power to discover Villiers'
whereabouts, but without success. Unfortunately, Slivers, who might have
helped them, being so well acquainted with the missing man's habits, was
dead; and, after trying for about three months to find some traces
of Villiers, the police gave up the search in despair. Madame Midas,
therefore, came to the conclusion that he was either dead or had left
the colony, and though half doubtful, yet hoped that she had now seen
the last of him.

She had invested her money largely in land, and thus being above the
reach of poverty for the rest of her life, she determined to take up
her abode in Melbourne for a few months, prior to going to England on a
visit. With this resolution, she gave up her cottage to Archie, who was
to live in it, and still manage the mine, and made preparations to come
down to Melbourne with Selina Sprotts.

Vandeloup heard of this resolution, and secretly rejoiced at it, for he
thought that seeing she liked him so much, now that her husband was to
all appearances dead, she might marry him, and it was to this end he had
kept up his acquaintance with her. He never thought of the girl he had
betrayed, pining away in a dull lodging. No, M. Vandeloup, untroubled by
the voice of conscience, serenely waited the coming of Madame Midas, and
determined, if he could possibly arrange it, to marry her. He was the
spider, and Madame Midas the fly; but as the spider knew the fly he had
to inveigle into his web was a very crafty one, he determined to act
with great caution; so, having ascertained when Madame Midas would be in
Melbourne, he awaited her arrival before doing anything, and trusted in
some way to get rid of Kitty before she came. It was a difficult game,
for M. Vandeloup knew that should Kitty find out his intention she would
at once go to Mrs Villiers, and then Madame would discover his baseness
in ruining the girl. M. Vandeloup, however, surveyed the whole situation
calmly, and was not ill-pleased at the position of affairs. Life was
beginning to bore him in Melbourne, and he wanted to be amused. Here was
a comedy worthy of Moliere--a jealous woman, a rich lady, and a handsome
man.

'My faith,' said M. Vandeloup, smiling to himself as he thought of the
situation, 'it's a capital comedy, certainly; but I must take care it
doesn't end as a tragedy.'



CHAPTER II

DISENCHANTMENT


It is said that 'creaking doors hang the longest,' and Mrs Pulchop, of
Carthage Cottage, Richmond, was an excellent illustration of the truth
of this saying. Thin, pale, with light bleached-looking hair,
and eyebrows and eyelashes to match, she looked so shadowy and
unsubstantial, than an impression was conveyed to the onlooker that
a breath might blow her away. She was often heard to declare, when
anything extra-ordinary happened, that one might 'knock her down with
a feather', which, as a matter of fact, was by no means a stretch of
fancy, provided the feather was a strong one and Mrs Pulchop was taken
unawares. She was continually alluding to her 'constitootion', as if
she had an interest in politics, but in reality she was referring to her
state of health, which was invariably bad. According to her own showing,
there was not a single disease under the sun with which she had not been
afflicted, and she could have written a whole book on the subject of
medicine, and put herself in, in every instance, as an illustrative
case.

Mr Pulchop had long since departed this life, being considerably
assisted in his exit from this wicked world by the quantity of
patent medicines his wife compelled him to take to cure him, which
unfortunately, however, had the opposite effect.

Mrs Pulchop said he had been a handsome man, but according to the
portrait she had of him he resembled a bull-dog more than anything else
in nature. The young Pulchops, of which there were two, both of the
female sex, took after their father in appearance and their mother in
temperament, and from the time they could talk and crawl knew as much
about drops, poultices, bandages, and draughts as many a hospital nurse
of mature age.

One day Vandeloup sent a telegram to Kitty saying he would be home to
dinner, and as he always required something extra in the way of cooking,
Kitty went to interview Mrs Pulchop on the subject. She found that
lady wrapped up in a heavy shawl, turning herself into a tea-kettle by
drinking hot water, the idea being, as she assured Kitty, to rouse up
her liver. Miss Topsy Pulchop was tying a bandage round her face, as she
felt a toothache coming on, while Miss Anna Pulchop was unfortunately
quite well, and her occupation being gone, was seated disconsolately at
the window trying to imagine she felt pains in her back.

'Ah!' groaned Mrs Pulchop, in a squeaky voice, sipping her hot
water; 'you don't know, my dear, what it is to be aworrited by your
liver--tortures and inquisitions ain't in it, my love.'

Kitty said she was very sorry, and asked her if nothing would relieve
her sufferings, but Mrs Pulchop shook her head triumphantly.

'My sweet young thing,' said the patient, with great gusto, 'I've tried
everything under the sun to make it right, but they ain't no good;
it's always expanding and a contracting of itself unbeknown to me, and
throwing the bile into the stomach, which ain't its proper place.'

'It does sound rather nasty,' assented Kitty; 'and Topsy seems to be
ill, too.'

'Toothache,' growled Topsy, who had a deep, bass voice, and being
modelled on the canine lines of her late lamented father, the growl
suited her admirably. 'I had two out last week, and now this one's
started.'

'Try a roasted fig, Topsy dear,' suggested her mother, who, now, having
finished her hot water, looked longingly at the kettle for more.

'Toothache,' growled Topsy, in reply, 'not gumboil;' the remedy
suggested by Mrs Pulchop being for the latter of these ills.

'You are quite well, at any rate,' said Kitty to Anna, cheerfully.

Anna, however, declined to be considered in good health. 'I fancy my
back is going to ache,' she said, darkly placing her hand in the small
of it. 'I'll have to put a linseed poultice on it tonight, to draw the
cold out.'

Then she groaned dismally, and her mother and sister, hearing the
familiar sound, also groaned, so there was quite a chorus, and Kitty
felt inclined to groan also, out of sympathy.

'M. Vandeloup is coming to dinner tonight,' she said, timidly, to Mrs
Pulchop.

'And a wonder it is, my sweet angel,' said that lady, indignantly,
rising and glancing at the pretty girl, now so pale and sad-looking,
'it's once in a blue moon as he comes 'ome, a--leaving you to mope at
home like a broken-hearted kitten in a coal box. Ah, if he only had a
liver, that would teach him manners.'

Groans of assent from the Misses Pulchops, who both had livers and were
always fighting with them.

'And what, my neglected cherub,' asked Mrs Pulchop, going to a
looking-glass which always hung in the kitchen, for the three to examine
their tongues in, 'what shall I give you for dinner?'

Kitty suggested a fowl, macaroni cheese, and fruit for dessert, which
bill of fare had such an effect on the family that they all groaned in
unison.

'Macaroni cheese,' growled Topsy, speaking from the very depth of the
cork soles she wore to keep her feet dry; 'there's nothing more bilious.
I couldn't look at it.'

'Ah,' observed Mrs Pulchop, 'you're only a weak gal, and men is that
obstinate they'd swaller bricks like ostriges sooner nor give in as it
hurt 'em. You shall 'ave a nice dinner, Mrs Vanloops, tho' I can't deny
but what it ull be bilious.'

Thus warned, Kitty retired into her own room and made herself nice for
Gaston to look on when he came.

Poor thing, it was so rarely now that he came home to dinner, that a
visit from him was regarded by her in the light of a treat. She dressed
herself in a pretty white dress and tied a blue sash round her waist,
so that she might look the same to him as when he first saw her. But
her face was now worn and white, and as she looked at her pallor in the
glass she wished she had some rouge to bring a touch of colour to her
cheeks. She tried to smile in her own merry way at the wan reflection
she beheld, but the effort was a failure, and she burst into tears.

At six o'clock everything was ready for dinner, and having seen that all
was in good order, Kitty walked outside to watch for Gaston.

There was a faint, warm, light outside, and the sky was of a pale
opaline tint, while the breeze blowing across the garden brought the
perfume of the flowers to her, putting Kitty in mind of Mrs Villiers'
garden at Ballarat. Oh, those innocent days! would they never come
again? Alas! she knew that they would not--the subtle feeling of youth
had left her for ever; and this girl, leaning up against the house with
her golden head resting on her arm, knew that the change had come over
her which turns all from youth to age.

Suddenly she heard the rattle of wheels, and rousing herself from her
reverie, she saw a hansom cab at the gate, and M. Vandeloup standing on
the pavement paying the driver. She also heard her lover tell the cabman
to call for him at eight o'clock, and her heart sank within her as she
thought that he would be gone again in two hours. The cab drove off,
and she stood cold and silent on the verandah waiting for Gaston,
who sauntered slowly up the walk with one hand in the pocket of his
trousers. He was in evening dress, and the night being warm he did not
wear an overcoat, so looked tall and slim in his dark clothes as he came
up the path swinging his cane gaily to and fro.

'Well, Bebe,' he said, brightly, as he bent down and kissed her, 'here I
am, you see; I hope you've got a nice dinner for me?'

'Oh, yes,' answered Kitty, trying to smile, and walking before him into
the house; 'I told Mrs Pulchop, and she has made special preparations.'

'How is that walking hospital?' asked Vandeloup, carelessly taking off
his hat; 'I suppose she is ill as usual.'

'So she says,' replied Kitty, with a laugh, as he put his arm in hers
and walked into the room; 'she is always ill.'

'Why, Bebe, how charming you look tonight,' said Vandeloup, holding her
at arm's length; 'quite like your old self.'

And indeed she looked very pretty, for the excitement of seeing him had
brightened her eyes and flushed her cheeks, and standing in the warm
light of the lamp, with her golden hair floating round her head, she
looked like a lovely picture.

'You are not going away very soon?' she whispered to Gaston, coming
close to him, and putting her hand on his shoulder; 'I see so little of
you now.'

'My dear child, I can't help it,' he said, carelessly removing her hand
and walking over to the dinner table; 'I have an engagement in town
tonight.'

'Ah, you no longer care for me,' said Kitty, with a stifled sob.

Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

'If you are going to make a scene,' he said, coldly, 'please postpone
it. I don't want my appetite taken away; would you kindly see if the
dinner is ready?'

Kitty dried her eyes and rang the bell, upon which Mrs Pulchop glided
into the room, still wrapped in her heavy shawl.

'It ain't quite ready yet, sir,' she said, in answer to Gaston's
question; 'Topsy 'aving been bad with the toothache, which you can't
expect people to cook dinners as is ill!'

'Why don't you send her to the hospital?' said Vandeloup, with a yawn,
looking at his watch.

'Never,' retorted Mrs Pulchop, in a decisively shrill voice; 'their
medicines ain't pure, and they leaves you at the mercy of doctors to be
practised on like a pianer. Topsy may go to the cemetery like her poor
dear father, but never to an inquisition of a hospital;' and with this
Mrs Pulchop faded out of the room, for her peculiar mode of egress could
hardly be called walking out.

At last dinner made its appearance, and Kitty recovering her spirits,
they had a very pleasant meal together, and then Gaston sat over his
coffee with a cigarette, talking to Kitty.

He never was without a cigarette in his mouth, and his fingers were
all stained a yellowish brown by the nicotine. Kitty lay back in a big
arm-chair listening to his idle talk and admiring him as he sat at the
dinner table.

'Can't you stay tonight?' she said, looking imploringly at him.

Vandeloup shook his head gently.

'I have an engagement, as I told you before,' he said, lazily; 'besides,
evenings at home are so dreary.'

'I will be here,' said Kitty, reproachfully.

'That will, of course, make a difference,' answered Gaston, with a faint
sneer; 'but you know,' shrugging his shoulders, 'I do not cultivate the
domestic virtues.'

'What will you do when we are married?' said Kitty, with an uneasy
laugh.

'Enough for the day is the evil thereof,' replied M. Vandeloup, with a
gay smile.

'What do you mean?' asked the girl, with a sudden start.

Vandeloup arose from his seat, and lighting another cigarette he lounged
over to the fireplace, and leaned against the mantelpiece with his hands
in his pockets.

'I mean that when we are married it will be time enough to talk about
such things,' he answered, looking at her through his eyelashes.

'Then we will talk about them very shortly,' said Kitty, with an angry
laugh, as her hands clenched the arms of the chair tightly; 'for the
year is nearly up, and you promised to marry me at the end of it.'

'How many things do we intend to do that are never carried out?' said
Gaston, gently. 'Do you mean that you will break your promise?' she
asked, with a scared face.

Vandeloup removed the cigarette from his mouth, and, leaning one elbow
on the mantelpiece, looked at her with a smile.

'My dear,' he said, quietly, 'things are not going well with me at
present, and I want money badly.'

'Well?' asked Kitty in a whisper, her heart beating loudly.

'You are not rich,' said her lover, 'so why should we two paupers get
married, only to plunge ourselves into misery?'

'Then you refuse to marry me?' she said, rising to her feet.

He bowed his head gently.

'At present, yes,' he answered, and replaced the cigarette between his
lips.

Kitty stood for a moment as if turned to stone, and then throwing up
her hands with a gesture of despair, fell back into the chair, and burst
into a flood of tears. Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders in a resigned
sort of manner, and glanced at his watch to see when it would be time
for him to go. Meanwhile he smoked quietly on, and Kitty, after sobbing
for some time, dried her eyes, and sat up in the chair again.

'How long is this going to last?' she asked, in a hard voice.

'Till I get rich!'

'That may be a long time?'

'It may.'

'Perhaps never?'

'Perhaps!'

'And then I will never be your wife?'

'Unfortunately, no.'

'You coward!' burst forth Kitty, rising from her seat, and crossing over
to him; 'you made me leave my home with your false promises, and now you
refuse to make me the only reparation that is in your power.'

'Circumstances are against any virtuous intentions I may entertain,'
retorted Vandeloup, coolly.

Kitty looked at him for a moment, then ran over to a desk near the
window, and took from thence a small bottle of white glass with two
red bands round it. She let the lid of the desk fall with a bang, then
crossed to Vandeloup, holding the bottle up before him.

'Do you know what this is?' she asked, in a harsh voice.

'The poison I made in Ballarat,' he answered, coolly, blowing a wreath
of smoke; 'how did you get hold of it?'

'I found it in your private desk,' she said, coldly.

'That was wrong, my dear,' he answered, gently, 'you should never betray
confidences--I left the desk in your charge, and it should have been
sacred to you.'

'Out of your own mouth are you condemned,' said the girl, quickly; 'you
have betrayed my confidence and ruined me, so if you do not fix a day
for our marriage, I swear I will drink this and die at your feet.'

'How melodramatic you are, Bebe,' said Vandeloup, coolly; 'you put me in
mind of Croisette in "Le Sphinx".'

'You don't believe I will do it.'

'No! I do not.'

'Then see.' She took the stopper out of the bottle and held it to her
lips. Vandeloup did not stir, but, still smoking, stood looking at her
with a smile. His utter callousness was too much for her, and replacing
the stopper again, she slipped the bottle into her pocket and let her
hands fall idly by her side.

'I thought you would not do it,' replied Gaston, smoothly, looking at
his watch; 'you must really excuse me, I hear the cab wheels outside.'

Kitty, however, placed herself in front of him as he moved towards the
door.

'Listen to me,' she said, in a harsh voice, with white face and flaming
eyes; 'to-night I leave this house for ever.'

He bowed his head.

'As it pleases you,' he replied, simply.

'My God!' she cried, 'have you no love for me now?'

'No,' he answered, coldly and brutally, 'I am tired of you.'

She fell on her knees and clutched his hand.

'Dear Gaston! dear Gaston!' she cried, covering it with kisses, 'think
how young I am, how my life is ruined, and by you. I gave up everything
for your sake--home, father, and friends--you will not cast me off
like this after all I have sacrificed for you? Oh, for God's sake,
speak--speak!'

'My dear,' said Vandeloup, gravely, looking down at the kneeling figure
with the streaming eyes and clenched hands, 'as long as you choose to
stay here I will be your friend--I cannot afford to marry you, but
while you are with me our lives will be as they have been; good-bye
at present,' touching her forehead coldly with his lips, 'I will call
to-morrow afternoon to see how you are, and I trust this will be the
last of such scenes.'

He drew his hand away from hers, and she sat on the floor dull and
silent, with her eyes fixed on the ground and an aching in her heart.
Vandeloup went into the hall, put on his hat, then lighting another
cigarette and taking his stick, walked gaily out of the house, humming
an air from 'La Belle Helene'. The cab was waiting for him at the door,
and telling the man to drive to the Bachelors' Club, he entered the
cab and rattled away down the street without a thought for the
broken-hearted woman he left behind.

Kitty sat on the floor with her folded hands lying carelessly on her lap
and her eyes staring idly at the carpet. This, then, was the end of all
her hopes and joys--she was cast aside carelessly by this man now that
he wearied of her. Love's young dream had been sweet indeed; but, ah!
how bitter was the awakening. Her castles in the air had all melted into
clouds, and here in the very flower of her youth she felt that her life
was ruined, and she was as one wandering in a sterile waste, with a
black and starless sky overhead. She clasped her hands with a sensation
of pain, and a rose at her breast fell down withered and dead. She took
it up with listless fingers, and with the quiver of her hand the leaves
fell off and were scattered over her white dress in a pink shower. It
was an allegory of her life, she thought. Once it had been as fresh and
full of fragrance as this dead rose; then it had withered, and now she
saw all her hopes and beliefs falling off one by one like the faded
petals. Ah, there is no despair like that of youth; and Kitty, sitting
on the floor with hot dry eyes and a pain in her heart, felt that the
sun of her life had set for ever.

**

So still the night was. No moon as yet, but an innumerable blaze of
stars set like diamonds in the dark blue sky. A smoky yellowish haze
hung over the city, but down in the garden amid the flowers all was cool
and fragrant. The house was quite dark, and a tall mulberry tree on one
side of it was black against the clear sky. Suddenly the door opened,
and a figure came out and closed the door softly after it. Down the
path it came, and standing in the middle of the garden, raised a white
tear-stained face to the dark sky. A dog barked in the distance, and
then a fresh cold breeze came sweeping through the trees and stirring
the still perfumes of the flowers. The figure threw its hands out
towards the house with a gesture of despair, then gliding down the path
it went out of the gate and stole quietly down the lonely street.



CHAPTER III

M. VANDELOUP HEARS SOMETHING TO HIS ADVANTAGE


As he drove rapidly into town Gaston's thoughts were anything but
pleasant. Not that he was thinking about Kitty, for he regarded the
scene he had with her as merely an outburst of hysterical passion, and
did not dream she would take any serious step. He forgot all about her
when he left the house, and, lying back in the cab smoking one of his
everlasting cigarettes, pondered about his position. The fact was he
was very hard up for money, and did not know where to turn for more. His
luck at cards was so great that even the Bachelors, used as they were
to losing large sums, began to murmur among themselves that M. Vandeloup
was too clever, and as that young gentleman by no means desired to lose
his popularity he stopped playing cards altogether, and so effectually
silenced everyone. So this mode of making money was gone, and until
Madame Midas arrived in town Vandeloup did not see how he was going
to keep on living in his former style. But as he never denied himself
anything while he had the money, he ordered the cabman to drive to
Paton's, the florist in Swanston Street, and there purchased a dainty
bunch of flowers for his button hole. From thence he drove to his club,
and there found a number of young fellows, including Mr Barty Jarper,
all going to the Princess Theatre to see 'The Mikado'. Barty rushed
forward when Vandeloup appeared and noisily insisted he should come
with them. The men had been dining, and were exhilarated with wine, so
Vandeloup, not caring to appear at the theatre with such a noisy
lot, excused himself. Barty and his friends, therefore, went off by
themselves, and left Vandeloup alone. He picked up the evening paper
and glanced over it with a yawn, when a name caught his eye which he had
frequently noticed before.

'I say,' he said to a tall, fair young fellow who had just entered, 'who
is this Meddlechip the paper is full of?'

'Don't you know?' said the other, in surprise; 'he's one of our richest
men, and very generous with his money.'

'Oh, I see! buys popularity,' replied Vandeloup, coolly; 'how is it I've
never met him?'

'He's been to China or Chile--or--something commencing with a C,'
returned the young man, vaguely; 'he only came back to Melbourne last
week; you are sure to meet him sooner or later.'

'Thanks, I'm not very anxious,' replied Vandeloup, with a yawn; 'money
in my eyes does not compensate for being bored; where are you going
to-night?'

'"Mikado",' answered the other, whose name was Bellthorp; 'Jarper asked
me to go up there; he's got a box.'

'How does he manage to pay for all these things?' asked Vandeloup,
rising; 'he's only in a bank, and does not get much money.'

'My dear fellow,' said Bellthorp, putting his arm in that of
Vandeloup's, 'wherever he gets it, he always has it, so as long as he
pays his way it's none of our business; come and have a drink.'

Vandeloup assented with a laugh, and they went to the bar.

'I've got a cab at the door,' he said to Bellthorp, after they had
finished their drinks, and were going downstairs; 'come with me, and
I'll go up to the Princess also; Jarper asked me and I refused, but men
as well as women are entitled to change their minds.'

They got into the cab and drove up Collins Street to the Princess
Theatre. After dismissing the cab, they went up stairs and found
the first act was just over, and the bar was filled with a crowd of
gentlemen, among whom Barty and his friends were conspicuous. On the one
side the doors opened on to the wide stone balcony, where a number of
ladies were seated, and on the other balcony a lot of men were smoking.
Leaving Bellthorp with Jarper, Vandeloup ordered a brandy and soda and
went out on the balcony to smoke.

The bell rang to indicate the curtain was going to rise on the second
act, and the bar and balconies gradually emptied themselves into the
theatre. M. Vandeloup, however, still sat smoking, and occasionally
drinking his brandy and soda, while he thought over his difficulties,
and wondered how he could get out of them. It was a wonderfully hot
night, and not even the dark blue of the moonless sky, studded with
stars, could give any sensation of coolness. Round the balcony were
several windows belonging to the dressing-rooms of the theatre, and the
lights within shone through the vivid red of the blinds with which they
were covered. The door leading into the bar was wide open, and within
everything seemed hot, even under the cool, white glare of the electric
lights, which shone in large oval-shaped globes hanging from the brass
supports in clusters like those grapes known as ladies' fingers. In
front stretched the high balustrade of the balcony, and as Vandeloup
leaned back in his chair he could see the white blaze of the electric
lights rising above this, and then the luminous darkness of the summer's
night. Beyond a cluster of trees, with a path, lit by gas lamps, going
through it, the lights of which shone like dull yellow stars. On the
right arose the great block of Parliament-buildings, with the confused
mass of the scaffolding, standing up black and dense against the sky. A
pleasant murmur arose from the crowded pavement below, and through the
incessant rattle of cabs and sharp, clear cries of the street boys,
Gaston could hear the shrill tones of a violin playing the dreamy melody
of the 'One Summer's Night in Munich' valse, about which all Melbourne
was then raving.

He was so occupied with his own thoughts that he did not notice two
gentlemen who came in from the bar, and taking seats a little distant
from him, ordered drinks from the waiter who came to attend to them.
They were both in evening dress, and had apparently left the opera in
order to talk business, for they kept conversing eagerly, and their
voices striking on Vandeloup's ear he glanced round at them and then
relapsed into his former inattentive position. Now, however, though
apparently absorbed in his own thoughts, he was listening to every word
they said, for he had caught the name of The Magpie Reef, a quartz mine,
which had lately been floated on the market, the shares of which had
run up to a pound, and then, as bad reports were circulated about
it, dropped suddenly to four shillings. Vandeloup recognised one
as Barraclough, a well-known stockbroker, but the other was a dark,
wiry-looking man of medium height, whom he had never seen before.

'I tell you it's a good thing,' said Barraclough, vehemently laying his
hand on the table; 'Tollerby is the manager, and knows everything about
it.'

'Gad, he ought to,' retorted the other with a laugh, 'if he's the
manager; but I don't believe in it, dear boy, I never did; it started
with a big splash, and was going to be a second Long Tunnel according to
the prospectus; now the shares are only four shillings--pshaw!'

'Yes, but you forget the shares ran up to a pound,' replied Barraclough,
quickly; 'and now they are so cheap we can snap them up all over the
market, and then--'

'Well?' asked the other, with interest.

'They will run up, old fellow--see?' and the Broker rubbed his hands
gleefully.

'How are you going to get up a "Boom" on them?' asked the wiry man,
sceptically; 'the public won't buy blindly, they must see something.'

'And so they shall,' said Barraclough, eagerly; 'Tollerby is sending
down some of the stone.'

'From the Magpie Reef?' asked the other, suspiciously.

'Of course,' retorted the Broker, indignantly; 'you did not think it
was salted, did you? There is gold in the reef, but it is patchy. See,'
pulling out a pocket-book, 'I got this telegram from Tollerby at four
o'clock to-day;' he took a telegram from the pocket-book and handed it
to his companion.

'Struck it rich--evidently pocket--thirty ounces to machine,' read
the other slowly; 'gad! that looks well, why don't you put it in the
papers?'

'Because I don't hold enough shares,' replied the other, impatiently;
'don't you understand? To-morrow I go on 'Change and buy up all the
shares at four shillings I can lay my hands on, then at the end of the
week the samples of stone--very rich--come down. I publish this telegram
from the manager, and the "Boom" starts.'

'How high do you think the shares will go?' asked the wiry man,
thoughtfully.

Barraclough shrugged his shoulders, and replaced the telegram in his
pocket-book.

'Two or three pounds, perhaps more,' he replied, rising. 'At all events,
it's a good thing, and if you go in with me, we'll clear a good few
thousand out of it.'

'Come and see me to-morrow morning,' said the wiry man, also rising. 'I
think I'll stand in.'

Barraclough rubbed his hands gleefully, and then slipping his arm
in that of his companion they left the balcony and went back to the
theatre.

Vandeloup felt every nerve in his body tingling. Here was a chance to
make money. If he only had a few hundreds he could buy up all the Magpie
shares he could get and reap the benefit of the rise. Five hundred
pounds! If he could obtain that sum he could buy two thousand five
hundred shares, and if they went to three pounds, he could clear nearly
eight thousand. What an idea! It was ripe fruit tumbling off the tree
without the trouble of plucking it. But five hundred pounds! He had not
as many pence, and he did not know where to get it. If he could only
borrow it from someone--but then he could offer no security. A sense of
his own helplessness came on him as he saw this golden tide flowing
past his door, and yet was unable to take advantage of it. Five hundred
pounds! The sum kept buzzing in his head like a swarm of bees, and he
threw himself down again in his chair to try and think where he could
get it.

A noise disturbed him, and he saw that the opera was over, and a crowd
of gentlemen were thronging into the bar. Jarper was among them, and he
thought he would speak to him on the subject. Yes, Barty was a clever
little fellow, and seemed always able to get money. Perhaps he would
be able to assist him. He stepped out of the balcony into the light and
touched Barty on the shoulder as he stood amid his friends.

'Hullo! it's you!' cried Barty, turning round. 'Where have you been, old
chap?'

'Out on the balcony,' answered Vandeloup, curtly.

'Come and have supper with us,' said Barty, hospitably. 'We are going to
have some at Leslie's.'

'Yes, do come,' urged Bellthorp, putting his arm in that of Vandeloup's;
'we'll have no end of fun.'

Vandeloup was just going to accept, as he thought on the way he could
speak privately to Barty about this scheme he had, when he saw a stout
gentleman at the end of the room taking a cup of coffee at the counter,
and talking to another gentleman who was very tall and thin. The figure
of the stout gentleman seemed familiar to Vandeloup, and at this moment
he turned slowly round and looked down the room. Gaston gave a start
when he saw his face, and then smiled in a gratified manner to himself.

'Who is that gentleman with the coffee?' he asked Barty.

'Those stout and lean kine,' said Barty, airily, 'puts one in mind of
Pharaoh's dream, doesn't it?'

'Yes, yes!' retorted Gaston, impatiently; 'but who are they?'

'The long one is Fell, the railway contractor,' said Barty, glancing
with some surprise at Vandeloup, 'and the other is old Meddlechip, the
millionaire.'

'Meddlechip,' echoed Vandeloup, as if to himself; 'my faith!'

'Yes,' broke in Bellthorp, quickly; 'the one we were speaking of at the
club--do you know him?'

'I fancy I do,' said Vandeloup, with a strange smile. 'You must excuse
me to your supper to-night.'

'No, we won't,' said Barty, firmly; 'you must come.'

'Then I'll look in later,' said Vandeloup, who had not the slightest
intention of going. 'Will that do?'

'I suppose it will have to,' said Bellthorp, in an injured tone; 'but
why can't you come now?'

'I've got to see about some business,' said Vandeloup.

'What, at this hour of the night?' cried Jarper, in a voice of disgust.

Vandeloup nodded, and lit a cigarette.

'Well, mind you come in later,' said Barty, and then he and his friends
left the bar, after making Vandeloup promise faithfully he would come.

Gaston sauntered slowly up to the coffee bar, and asked for a cup in
his usual musical voice, but when the stout gentleman heard him speak he
turned pale and looked up. The thin one had gone off to talk to someone
else, so when Vandeloup got his coffee he turned slowly round and looked
straight at Meddlechip seated in the chair.

'Good evening, M. Kestrike,' he said, quietly.

Meddlechip, whose face was usually red and florid-looking, turned
ghastly pale, and sprang to his feet.

'Octave Braulard!' he gasped, placing his coffee cup on the counter.

'At your service,' said Vandeloup, looking rapidly round to see that no
one overheard the name, 'but here I am Gaston Vandeloup.'

Meddlechip passed his handkerchief over his face and moistened his dry
lips with his tongue.

'How did you get here?' he asked, in a strangled voice.

'It's a long story,' said M. Vandeloup, putting his coffee cup down and
wiping his lips with his handkerchief; 'suppose we go and have supper
somewhere, and I'll tell you all about it.'

'I don't want any supper,' said Meddlechip, sullenly, his face having
regained its normal colour. 'Possibly not, but I do,' replied Vandeloup,
sweetly, taking his arm; 'come, let us go.'

Meddlechip did not resist, but walked passively out of the bar with
Vandeloup, much to the astonishment of the thin gentleman, who called
out to him but without getting any answer.

Meddlechip went to the cloak room and put on his coat and hat. Then
he followed Vandeloup down the stairs and paused at the door while the
Frenchman hailed a hansom. When it drove up, however, he stopped short
at the edge of the pavement.

'I won't go,' he said, determinedly.

Vandeloup looked at him with a peculiar gleam in his dark eyes, and
bowed.

'Let me persuade you, Monsieur,' he said, blandly, holding the door of
the cab open.

Meddlechip glanced at him, and then, with a sigh of resignation, entered
the cab, followed by Vandeloup.

'Where to, sir?' asked the cabman, through the trap.

'To Leslie's Supper Rooms,' replied the Frenchman, and the cab drove
off.



CHAPTER IV

THE CASE OF ADELE BLONDET


Leslie's Supper Rooms in Bourke Street East were very well known--that
is, among a certain class. Religious people and steady businessmen knew
nothing about such a place except by reputation, and looked upon it,
with horror, as a haunt of vice and dissipation.

Though Leslie's, in common with other places had to close at a certain
hour, yet when the shutters were up, the door closed, and the lights
extinguished in the front of the house, there was plenty of life and
bustle going on at the back, where there were charmingly furnished
little rooms for supper parties. Barty Jarper had engaged one of these
apartments, and with about a dozen young men was having a good time of
it when Vandeloup and Meddlechip drove up. After dismissing the cab and
looking up and down the street to see that no policeman was in
sight, Vandeloup knocked at the door in a peculiar manner, and it was
immediately opened in a stealthy kind of way. Gaston gave his name,
whereupon they were allowed to enter, and the door was closed after
them in the same quiet manner, all of which was very distasteful to Mr
Meddlechip, who, being a public man and a prominent citizen, felt that
he was breaking the laws he had assisted to make. He looked round in
some disgust at the crowds of waiters, and at the glimpses he caught
every now and then of gentlemen in evening dress, and what annoyed him
more than anything else--ladies in bright array. Oh! a dissipated place
was Leslie's, and even in the daytime had a rakish-looking appearance as
if it had been up all night and knew a thing or two. Mr Meddlechip would
have retreated from this den of iniquity if he could, but as he wanted
to have a thorough explanation with Vandeloup, he meekly followed the
Frenchman through a well-lighted passage, with statues on either side
holding lamps, to a little room beautifully furnished, wherein a supper
table was laid out. Here the waiter who conducted them took their hats
and Meddlechip's coat and hung them up, then waited respectfully for
M. Vandeloup to give his orders. A portly looking waiter he was, with
a white waistcoat, a white shirt, which bulged out in a most obtrusive
manner, and a large white cravat, which was tied round an equally large
white collar. When he walked he rolled along like a white-crested wave,
and with his napkin under his arm, the heel of one foot in the hollow of
the other, and his large red face, surmounted by a few straggling tufts
of black hair, he was truly wonderful to behold.

This magnificent creature, who answered to the name of Gurchy, received
Vandeloup's orders with a majestic bend of his head, then rolling up
to Mr Meddlechip, he presented the bill of fare to that gentleman, who,
however, refused it.

'I don't want any supper,' he said, curtly.

Gurchy, though a waiter, was human, and looked astonished, while
Vandeloup remonstrated in a suave manner.

'But, my dear sir,' he said, leaning back in his chair, 'you must have
something to eat. I assure you,' with a significant smile, 'you will
need it.'

Meddlechip's lips twitched a little as the Frenchman spoke, then, with
an uneasy laugh, he ordered something, and drew his chair up to the
table.

'And, waiter,' said Vandeloup, softly, as Gurchy was rolling out of the
door, 'bring some wine, will you? Pommery, I think, is best,' he added,
turning to Meddlechip.

'What you like,' returned that gentleman, impatiently, 'I don't care.'

'That's a great mistake,' replied Gaston, coolly; 'bad wine plays the
deuce with one's digestion--two bottles of Pommery, waiter.'

Gurchy nodded, that is to say his head disappeared for a moment in the
foam of his collar, then re-appeared again as he slowly rolled out of
the door and vanished.

'Now, then, sir,' said Meddlechip, sharply, rising from his seat and
closing the door, 'what did you bring me here for?'

M. Vandeloup raised his eyebrows in surprise.

'How energetic you are, my dear Kestrike,' he said, smoothly, lying down
on the sofa, and contemplating his shoes with great satisfaction; 'just
the same noisy, jolly fellow as of yore.'

'Damn you!' said the other, fiercely, at which Gaston laughed.

'You had better leave that to God,' he answered, mockingly; 'he
understands more about it than you do.'

'Oh, I know you of old,' said Meddlechip, walking up and down excitedly;
'I know you of old, with your sneers and your coolness, but it won't do
here,' stopping opposite the sofa, and glaring down at Vandeloup; 'it
won't do here!'

'So you've said twice,' replied M. Vandeloup, with a yawn. 'How do you
want me to conduct myself? Do tell me; I am always open to improvement.'

'You must leave Australia,' said Meddlechip, sharply, and breathing
hard.

'If I refuse?' asked M. Vandeloup, lazily, smiling to himself.

'I will denounce you as a convict escaped from New Caledonia!' hissed
the other, putting his hands in his pockets, and bending forward.

'Indeed,' said Gaston, with a charming smile, 'I don't think you will go
so far as that, my friend.'

'I swear,' said Meddlechip, loudly, raising his hand, 'I swear--'

'Oh, fie!' observed M. Vandeloup, in a shocked tone; 'an old man like
you should not swear; it's very wrong, I assure you; besides,' with a
disparaging glance, 'you are not suited to melodrama.'

Meddlechip evidently saw it was no good trying to fight against the
consummate coolness of this young man, so with a great effort resolved
to adapt himself to the exigencies of the case, and fight his adversary
with his own weapons.

'Well,' he said at length, resuming his seat at the table, and trying to
speak calmly, though his flushed face and quivering lips showed what
an effort it cost him; 'let us have supper first, and we can talk
afterwards.'

'Ah, that's much better,' remarked M. Vandeloup, sitting up to the
table, and unrolling his napkin. 'I assure you, my dear fellow, if you
treat me well, I'm a very easy person to deal with.'

The eyes of the two men met for a moment across the table, and
Vandeloup's had such a meaning look in them, that Meddlechip dropped his
own with a shiver.

The door opened, and the billowy waiter rolled up to the table, and
having left a deposit of plates and food thereon, subsided once more out
of the door, then rolled in again with the champagne. He drew the cork
of one of the bottles, filled the glasses on the table, and then after
giving a glance round to see that all was in order, suddenly found that
it was ebb-tide, and rolled slowly out of the door, which he closed
after him.

Meddlechip ate his supper in silence, but drank a good deal of champagne
to keep his courage up for the coming ordeal, which he knew he must go
through. Vandeloup, on the other hand, ate and drank very little, as he
talked gaily all the time about theatres, racing, boating, in fact of
everything except the thing the other man wanted to hear.

'I never mix up business with pleasure, my dear fellow,' said Gaston,
amiably, guessing his companion's thoughts; 'when we have finished
supper and are enjoying our cigars, I will tell you a little story.'

'I don't want to hear it,' retorted the other, harshly, having an
intuitive idea what the story would be about.

'Possibly not,' replied M. Vandeloup, smoothly; 'nevertheless it is my
wish that you should hear it.'

Meddlechip looked as if he were inclined to resent this plain speaking,
but after a pause evidently thought better of it, and went on tranquilly
eating his supper.

When they had finished Gaston rang the bell, and when the billow rolled
in, ordered a fresh bottle of wine and some choice cigars of a brand
well known at Leslie's. Gurchy's head disappeared in foam again, and did
not emerge therefrom till he was out of the door.

Try one of these,' said M. Vandeloup, affably, to Meddlechip, when
the billow had rolled in with the cigars and wine, 'it's an excellent
brand.'

'I don't care about smoking,' answered Meddlechip.

'To please me,' urged M. Vandeloup, persuasively; whereupon Meddlechip
took one, and having lighted it puffed away evidently under protest,
while the billow opened the new bottle of wine, freshened up the
glasses, and then rolled majestically out of the door, like a tidal
wave.

'Now then for the story,' said M. Vandeloup, leaning back luxuriously on
the sofa, and blowing a cloud of smoke.

'I don't want to hear it,' retorted the other, quickly; 'name your terms
and let us end the matter.'

'Pardon me,' said M. Vandeloup, with a smile, 'but I refuse to accept
any terms till I have given you thoroughly to understand what I mean; so
you must hear this little tale of Adele Blondet.'

'For God's sake, no!' cried the other, hoarsely, rising to his feet; 'I
tell you I am haunted by it; by day and by night, sleeping or waking, I
see her face ever before me like an accusing angel.'

'Curious,' murmured M. Vandeloup, 'especially as she was not by any
means an angel.'

'I thought it was done with,' said Meddlechip, twisting his fingers
together, while the large drops of perspiration stood on his forehead,
'but here you come like a spectre from the past and revive all the old
horrors.'

'If you call Adele a horror,' retorted Vandeloup, coolly, 'I am
certainly going to revive her, so you had best sit down and hear me to
the end, for you certainly will not turn me from my purpose.'

Meddlechip sank back into his chair with a groan, while his relentless
enemy curled himself up on the sofa in a more comfortable position and
began to talk.

'We will begin the story,' said M. Vandeloup, in a conversational tone,
with an airy wave of his delicate white hand, 'in the good old-fashioned
style of our fairy tales. Once upon a time--let us say three years
ago--there lived in Paris a young man called Octave Braulard, who was
well born and comfortably off. He had a fancy to be a doctor, and was
studying for the medical profession when he became entangled with a
woman. Mademoiselle Adele Blondet was a charmingly ugly actress, who was
at that time the rage of Paris. She attracted all the men, not by
her looks, but by her tongue. Octave Braulard,' went on M. Vandeloup,
complacently looking at himself, 'was handsome, and she fell in love
with him. She became his mistress, and caused a nine days' wonder in
Paris by remaining constant to him for six months. Then there came to
Paris an English gentleman from Australia--name, Kestrike; position,
independent; income, enormous. He had left Madame his wife in London,
and came to our wicked Paris to amuse himself. He saw Adele Blondet, and
was introduced to her by Braulard; result, Kestrike betrayed his friend
Braulard by stealing from him his mistress. Why was this? Was Kestrike
handsome? No. Was he fascinating? No. Was he rich? Yes. Therein lay
the secret; Adele loved the purse, not the man. Braulard,' said Gaston,
rising from the sofa quickly and walking across the room, 'felt his
honour wounded. He remonstrated with Adele, no use; he offered to fight
a duel with the perfidious Kestrike, no use; the thief was a coward.'

'No,' cried Meddlechip, rising, 'no coward.'

'I say, yes!' said Vandeloup, crossing to him, and forcing him back
in his chair; 'he betrayed his friend and refused to give him the
satisfaction of a gentleman. What did Braulard do? Rest quiet?
No. Revenge his honour? Yes! One night,' pursued Gaston, in a low
concentrated voice, grasping Meddlechip's wrist firmly, and looking at
him with fiery eyes, 'Braulard prepared a poison, a narcotic which was
quick in its action, fatal in its results. He goes to the house of Adele
Blondet at half-past twelve o'clock--the hour now,' he said, rapidly
swinging round and pointing to the clock on the mantelpiece, which
had just struck the half-hour; 'he found them at supper,' releasing
Meddlechip's wrist and crossing to the sofa; 'he sat opposite Kestrike,
as he does now,' leaning forward and glaring at Meddlechip, who shrank
back in his chair. 'Adele, at the head of the table, laughs and smiles;
she looks at her old lover and sees murder in his face; she is ill and
retires to her room. Kestrike follows her to see what is the matter.
Braulard is left alone; he produces a bottle and pours its contents into
a cup of coffee, waiting for Adele. Kestrike returns, saying Adele is
ill; she wants a drink. He takes her the poisoned cup of coffee; she
drinks it and falls'--with a long breath--'asleep. Kestrike returns to
the room, asks Braulard to leave the house. Braulard refuses. Kestrike
is afraid, and would leave himself; he rises from the table; so does
Braulard;'--here Gaston rose and crossed to Meddlechip, who was also on
his feet--'he goes to Kestrike, seizes his wrist, thus--drags him to
the bedroom, and there on the bed lies Adele Blonde--dead--killed by the
poison of one lover given her by the other--and the murderers look at
one another--thus.'

Meddlechip wrenched his hand from Vandeloup's iron grip and fell back
ghastly white in his chair, with a strangled cry, while the Frenchman
stood over him with eyes gleaming with hatred.

'Kestrike,' pursued Vandeloup, rapidly, 'is little known in Paris--his
name is an assumed one--he leaves France before the police can discover
how he has poisoned Adele Blondet, and crosses to England--meets Madame,
his wife, and returns to Australia, where he is called--Meddlechip.'

The man in the chair threw up his hands as if to keep the other off, and
uttered a stifled cry.

'He then goes to China,' went on Gaston, bending nearer to the shrinking
figure, 'and returns after twelve months, where he meets Octave Braulard
in the theatre--yes, the two murderers meet in Melbourne! How came
Braulard here? Was it chance? No. Was it design? No. Was it Fate? Yes.'

He hissed the words in Meddlechip's ear, and the wretched man shrank
away from him again.

'Braulard,' pursued Vandeloup, in a calmer tone, 'also left the house of
Adele Blondet. She is found dead; one of her lovers cannot be found; the
other, Braulard, is accused of the crime; he defies the police to prove
it; she has been poisoned. Bah! there is no trace. Braulard will be
free. Stop! who is this man called Prevol, who appears? He is a fellow
student of Braulard's, and knows the poison. Braulard is lost! Prevol
examines the body, proves that poison has been given--by whom? Braulard,
and none other. He is sentenced to death; but he is so handsome that
Paris urges pardon. No; it is not according to the law. Still, spare his
life? Yes. His life is spared. The galleys at Toulon? No. New Caledonia?
Yes. He is sent there. But is Braulard a coward? No. Does he rest as a
convict? No. He makes friends with another convict; they steal a boat,
and fly from the island; they drift, and drift, for days and days; the
sun rises, the sun sets--still they drift; their food is giving out, the
water in the barrel is low--God! are they to die of thirst and famine?
No. The sky is red--like blood--the sun is sinking; land is in the
distance--they are saved!' falling on his knees; 'they are saved, thank
God!'

Meddlechip, who had recovered himself, wiped his face with his
handkerchief, and sneered with his white lips at the theatrical way
Gaston was behaving in. Vandeloup saw this, and, springing to his feet,
crossed to the millionaire.

'Braulard,' he continued, quickly, 'lands on the coast of Queensland;
he comes to Sydney--no work; to Melbourne--no work; he goes to
Ball'rat--work there at a gold-mine. Braulard takes the name of
Vandeloup and makes money; he comes to Melbourne, lives there a year,
he is in want of money, he is in despair; at the theatre he overhears a
plan which will give him money, but he needs capital--despair again, he
will never get it. Aha! Fate once more intervenes--he sees M. Kestrike,
now Meddlechip, he will ask him for the money, and the question is, will
he get it? So the story is at an end.' He ended with his usual smile,
all his excitement having passed away, and lounging over to the
supper-table lit a cigarette and sat down on the sofa.

Meddlechip sat silently looking at the disordered supper-table and
thinking deeply. The dishes were scattered about the white cloth, and
some vividly red cherries had fallen down from the fruit dish in the
centre, some salt was spilt near his elbow, the napkins, twisted
into thin wisps, were lying among the dirty dishes, and the champagne
glasses, half filled with the straw-coloured wine, were standing near
the empty bottles. Meddlechip thought for a few moments, and then looked
up suddenly in a cool, collected, business-like manner.

'As I understand you,' he said, in a steady voice, 'the case stands
thus: you know a portion, or rather, I should say, an episode of my
life, I would gladly forget. I did not commit the murder.'

'No, but you gave her the poison.'

'Innocently I did, I confess.'

'Bah! who will believe that?' retorted M. Vandeloup, with a shrug; 'but
never mind this at present; let me hear what you intend to do.'

'You know a secret,' said Meddlechip, nervously, 'which is dangerous to
me; you want to sell it; well, I will be the buyer--name your price.'

'Five hundred pounds,' said Vandeloup, quietly.

'Is that all?' asked the other, with a start of surprise; 'I was
prepared for five thousand.'

'I am not exorbitant in my demands,' answered Vandeloup, smoothly; 'and
as I told you, I have a scheme on hand by which I may make a lot of
money-five hundred pounds is sufficient to do what I want. If the scheme
succeeds, I will be rich enough to do without any more money from you.'

'Yes; but if it fails?' said Meddlechip, doubtfully.

'If it fails, I will be obliged to draw on you again,' returned Gaston,
candidly; 'you can't say, however, that I am behaving badly to you.'

'No,' answered Meddlechip, looking at him. 'I must say you are easier
to deal with than I anticipated. Well, if I give you my cheque for five
hundred--'

'Say six hundred,' observed Vandeloup, rising and going to a small table
in the corner of the room on which were pens and ink. 'I want an extra
hundred.'

'Six hundred then be it,' answered Meddlechip, quietly, rising and going
to his overcoat, from whence he took his cheque book. 'For this amount
you will be silent.'

M. Vandeloup bowed gracefully.

'On my word of honour,' he replied, gaily; 'but, of course,' with a
sudden glance at Meddlechip, 'you will treat me as a friend--ask me to
your house, and introduce me to Madame, your wife.'

'I don't see the necessity,' returned Meddlechip, angrily, going over to
the small table and sitting down.

'Pardon me, I do' answered the Frenchman, with a dangerous gleam in his
eyes.

'Well, well, I agree,' said Meddlechip, testily, taking up a pen and
opening his cheque book. 'You, of course, can dictate your own terms.'

'I understand that perfectly,' replied Vandeloup, delicately, lighting
a cigarette, 'and have done so. You can't say they are hard, as I said
before.'

Meddlechip did not answer, but wrote out a cheque for six hundred
pounds, and then handed it to Vandeloup, who received it with a bow and
slipped it into his waistcoat pocket.

'With this,' he said, touching his pocket, 'I hope to make nearly ten
thousand in a fortnight.'

Meddlechip stared at him.

'I hope you will,' he answered, gruffly, 'all the better for my purse if
you do.'

'That, of course, goes without saying,' replied Vandeloup, lazily. 'Have
some more wine?' touching the bell.

'No more, thank you,' said Meddlechip, putting on his overcoat. 'It's
time I was off.'

'By the way,' said M. Vandeloup, coolly, 'I have not any change in my
pocket; you might settle for the supper.'

Meddlechip burst out laughing.

'Confound your impudence,' he said, quickly, 'I thought you asked me to
supper.'

'Oh, yes,' replied Vandeloup, taking his hat and stick, 'but I intended
you to pay for it.'

'You were pretty certain of your game, then?'

'I always am,' answered Vandeloup, as the door opened, and Gurchy rolled
slowly into the room.

Meddlechip paid the bill without making further objections, and then
they both left Leslie's with the same precautions as had attended their
entry. They walked slowly down Bourke Street, and parted at the corner,
Meddlechip going to Toorak, while Vandeloup got into a cab and told the
man to drive to Richmond, then lit a cigarette and gave himself up to
reflection as he drove along.

'I've done a good stroke of business tonight,' he said, smiling, as he
felt the cheque in his pocket, 'and I'll venture the whole lot on this
Magpie reef. If it succeeds I will be rich; if it does not--well, there
is always Meddlechip as my banker.' Then his thoughts went back to
Kitty, for the reason of his going home so late was that he wanted to
find out in what frame of mind she was.

'She'll never leave me,' he said, with a laugh, as the cab drew up in
front of Mrs Pulchop's house; 'if she does, so much the better for me.'

He dismissed his cab, and let himself in with the latch key; then
hanging up his hat in the hall he went straight to the bedroom and
lit the gas. He then crossed to the bed, expecting to find Kitty sound
asleep, but to his surprise the bed was untouched, and she was not
there.

'Ah!' he said, quietly, 'so she has gone, after all. Poor little girl,
I wonder where she is. I must really look after her to-morrow; at
present,' he said, pulling off his coat, with a yawn, 'I think I'll go
to bed.'

He went to bed, and laying his head on the pillow was soon fast asleep,
without even a thought for the girl he had ruined.



CHAPTER V


THE KEY OF THE STREET

When Kitty left Mrs Pulchop's residence she had no very definite idea as
to what she was going to do with herself. Her sole thought was to get as
far away from her former life as possible--to disappear in the crowd
and never to be heard of again. Poor little soul, she never for a moment
dreamed that it was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, and
that the world at large might prove more cruel to her than Vandeloup in
particular. She had been cut to the heart by his harsh cold words, but
notwithstanding he had spoken so bitterly she still loved him, and would
have stayed beside him, but her jealous pride forbade her to do so. She
who had been queen of his heart and the idol of his life could not bear
to receive cold looks and careless words, and to be looked upon as an
encumbrance and a trouble. So she thought if she left him altogether and
never saw him again he would, perhaps, be sorry for her and cherish her
memory tenderly for evermore. If she had only known Gaston's true
nature she would not thus have buoyed herself up with false hopes of his
sorrow, but as she believed in him as implicitly as a woman in love with
a man always does, in a spirit of self-abnegation she cut herself off
from him, thinking it would be to his advantage if not to her own.

She went into town and wandered about listlessly, not knowing where to
go, till nearly twelve o'clock, and the streets were gradually emptying
themselves of their crowds. The coffee stalls were at all the corners,
with hungry-looking people of both sexes crowded round them, and here
and there in door steps could be seen some outcasts resting in huddled
heaps, while the policemen every now and then would come up and make
them move on.

Kitty was footsore and heart-weary, and felt inclined to cry, but
was nevertheless resolved not to go back to her home in Richmond. She
dragged herself along the lonely street, and round the corner came on
a coffee stall with no one at it except one small boy whose head just
reached up to the counter. Such a ragged boy as he was, with a broad
comical-looking face--a shaggy head of red hair and a hat without any
brim to it--his legs were bandy and his feet were encased in a pair
of men's boots several sizes too large for him. He had a bundle of
newspapers under one arm and his other hand was in his pocket rattling
some coppers together while he bargained with the coffee-stall keeper
over a pie. The coffee stall had the name of Spilsby inscribed on it, so
it is fair to suppose that the man therein was Spilsby himself. He had
a long grey beard and a meek face, looking so like an old wether himself
it appeared almost the act of a cannibal on his part to eat a mutton
pie. A large placard at the back of the stall set forth the fact that
'Spilsby's Specials' were sold there for the sum of one penny, and it
was over 'Spilsby's Specials' the ragged boy was arguing.

'I tell you I ain't agoin' to eat fat,' he said, in a hoarse voice, as
if his throat was stuffed up with one of his own newspapers. 'I want a
special, I don't want a hordinary.'

'This are a special, I tells you,' retorted Spilsby, ungrammatically,
pushing a smoking pie towards the boy; 'what a young wiper you are,
Grattles, a-comin' and spoilin' my livin' by cussin' my wictuals.'

'Look 'ere,' retorted Grattles, standing on the tips of his large boots
to look more imposing, 'my stumick's a bit orf when it comes to fat,
and I wants the vally of my penny; give us a muttony one, with lots of
gravy.'

''Ere y'are, then,' said Spilsby, quite out of temper with his
fastidious customer; ''ere's a pie as is all made of ram as 'adn't got
more fat on it than you 'ave.'

Grattles examined the article classed under this promising description
with a critical air, and then laid down his penny and took the pie.

'It's a special, ain't it?' he asked, suspiciously smelling it.

'It's the specialest I've got, any'ow,' answered Spilsby, testily,
putting the penny in his pocket; 'you'd eat a 'ole sheep if you could
get it for a penny, you greedy young devil, you.'

Here Kitty, who was feeling faint and ill with so much walking, came
forward and asked for a cup of coffee.

'Certainly, dear,' said Spilsby, with a leer, pouring out the coffee;
'I'm allays good to a pretty gal.'

'It's more nor your coffee is,' growled Grattles, who had finished
his special and was now licking his fingers, 'it's all grounds and 'ot
water.'

'Go away, you wicious thing,' retorted Spilsby, mildly, giving Kitty
her coffee and change out of the money she handed him, 'or I'll set the
perlice on yer.'

'Oh, my eye!' shrieked Grattles, executing a grimace after the fashion
of a favourite comedian; 'he ain't a tart, oh, no--'es a pie, 'e are,
a special, a muttony special; 'e don't kill no kittings and call 'em
sheep, oh, no; 'e don't buy chicory and calls it coffee, blest if
'e does; 'e's a corker, 'e are, and 'is name ain't the same as 'is
father's.'

'What d'ye mean,' asked Spilsby, fiercely--that is, as fiercely as his
meek appearance would let him; 'what do you know of my parents, you
bandy-legged little devil? who's your--progenitor, I'd like to know?'

'A dook, in course,' said Grattles loftily; 'but we don't, in
consequence of 'er Nibs bein' mixed up with the old man's mother, reweal
the family skeletons to low piemen,' then, with a fresh grimace, he
darted along the street as quickly as his bandy legs could carry him.

Spilsby took no notice of this, but, seeing some people coming round the
corner, commenced to sing out his praises of the specials.

''Ere yer are--all 'ot an' steamin',' he cried, in a kind of loud
bleat, which added still more to his sheep-like appearance: 'Spilsby's
Specials--oh, lovely--ain't they nice; my eye, fine muttin pies; who ses
Spilsby's; 'ave one, miss?' to Kitty.

Thank you, no,' replied Kitty, with a faint smile as she put down her
empty cup; 'I'm going now.'

Spilsby was struck by the educated manner in which she spoke and by the
air of refinement about her.

'Go home, my dear,' he said, kindly, leaning forward; 'this ain't no
time for a young gal like you to be out.'

'I've got no home,' said Kitty, bitterly, 'but if you could direct me--'

'Here, you,' cried a shrill female voice, as a woman dressed in a
flaunting blue gown rushed up to the stall, 'give us a pie quick; I'm
starvin'; I've got no time to wait.'

'No, nor manners either,' said Spilsby, with a remonstrating bleat,
pushing a pie towards her; 'who are you, a-shovin' your betters,
Portwine Annie?'

'My betters,' scoffed the lady in blue, looking Kitty up and down with
a disdainful smile on her painted face; 'where are they, I'd like to
know?'

''Ere, 'old your tongue,' bleated Spilsby, angrily, 'or I'll tell the
perlice at the corner.'

'And much I care,' retorted the shrill-voiced female, 'seeing he's a
particular friend of mine.'

'For God's sake tell me where I can find a place to stop in,' whispered
Kitty to the coffee-stall keeper.

'Come with me, dear,' said Portwine Annie, eagerly, having overheard
what was said, but Kitty shrank back, and then gathering her cloak
around her ran down the street.

'What do you do that for, you jade?' said Spilsby, in a vexed tone;
'don't you see the girl's a lady.'

'Of course she is,' retorted the other, finishing her pie; 'we're all
ladies; look at our dresses, ain't they fine enough? Look at our houses,
aren't they swell enough?'

'Yes, and yer morals, ain't they bad enough?' said Spilsby, washing up
the dirty plate.

'They're quite as good as many ladies in society, at all events,'
replied Portwine Annie, with a toss of her head as she walked off.

'Oh, it's a wicked world,' bleated Spilsby, in a soft voice, looking
after the retreating figure. 'I'm sorry for that poor gal--I am
indeed--but this ain't business,' and once more raising his voice he
cried up his wares, 'Oh, lovely; ain't they muttony? Spilsby's specials,
all 'ot; one penny.'

Meanwhile Kitty was walking quickly down Elizabeth Street, and turning
round the corner ran right up against a woman.

'Hullo!' said the woman, catching her wrist, 'where are you off to?'

'Let me go,' cried Kitty, in a panting voice.

The woman was tall and handsome, but her face had a kindly expression on
it, and she seemed touched with the terrified tone of the girl.

'My poor child,' she said, half contemptuously, releasing her, 'I won't
hurt you. Go if you like. What are you doing out at this time of the
night?'

'Nothing,' faltered Kitty, with quivering lips, lifting her face up to
the pale moon. The other saw it in the full light and marked how pure
and innocent it was.

'Go home, dear,' she said, in a soft tone, touching the girl kindly on
the shoulder, 'it's not fit for you to be out at this hour. You are not
one of us.'

'My God! no,' cried Kitty, shrinking away from her.

The other smiled bitterly.

'Ah! you draw away from me now,' she said, with a sneer; 'but what are
you, so pure and virtuous, doing on the streets at this hour? Go home in
time, child, or you will become like me.'

'I have no home,' said Kitty, turning to go.

'No home!' echoed the other, in a softer tone; 'poor child! I cannot
take you with me--God help me; but here is some money,' forcing a
shilling into the girl's hand, 'go to Mrs Rawlins at Victoria Parade,
Fitzroy--anyone will tell you where it is--and she will take you in.'

'What kind of a place is it?' said Kitty.

'A home for fallen women, dear,' answered the other, kindly.

'I'm not a fallen woman!' cried the girl, wildly, 'I have left my home,
but I will go back to it--anything better than this horrible life on the
streets.'

'Yes, dear,' said the woman, softly, 'go home; go home, for God's sake,
and if you have a father and mother to shield you from harm, thank
heaven for that. Let me kiss you once,' she added, bending forward, 'it
is so long since I felt a good woman's kiss on my lips. Good-bye.'

'Good-bye,' sobbed Kitty, raising her face, and the other bent down and
kissed the child-like face, then with a stifled cry, fled away through
the moonlit night.

Kitty turned away slowly and walked up the street. She knew there was
a cab starting opposite the Town Hall which went to Richmond, and
determined to go home. After all, hard though her life might be in the
future, it would be better than this cruel harshness of the streets.

At the top of the block, just as she was about to cross Swanston Street,
a party of young men in evening dress came round the corner singing, and
evidently were much exhilarated with wine. These were none other than
Mr Jarper and his friends, who, having imbibed a good deal more than
was good for them, were now ripe for any mischief. Bellthorp and Jarper,
both quite intoxicated, were walking arm-in-arm, each trying to keep
the other up, so that their walking mostly consisted of wild lurches
forward, and required a good deal of balancing.

'Hullo!' cried Bellthorp solemnly--he was always solemn when
intoxicated--'girl--pretty--eh!'

'Go 'way,' said Barty, staggering back against the wall, 'we're
Christian young men.'

Kitty tried to get away from this inebriated crew, but they all closed
round her, and she wrung her hands in despair. 'If you are gentlemen you
will let me go,' she cried, trying to push past.

'Give us kiss first,' said a handsome young fellow, with his hat very
much on one side, putting his arm round her waist, 'pay toll, dear.'

She felt his hot breath on her cheek and shrieked out wildly, trying
to push him away with all her force. The young man, however, paid no
attention to her cries, but was about to kiss her when he was taken by
the back of the neck and thrown into the gutter.

'Gentlemen!' said a rich rolling voice, which proceeded from a portly
man who had just appeared on the scene. 'I am astonished,' with the
emphasis on the first person singular, as if he were a man of great
note.

'Old boy,' translated Bellthorp to the others, 'is 'tonished.'

'You have,' said the stranger, with an airy wave of his hand, 'the
appearance of gentlemen, but, alas! you are but whited sepulchres, fair
to look upon, but full of dead men's bones within.'

'Jarper,' said Bellthorp, solemnly, taking Barty's arm, 'you're a
tombstone with skeleton inside--come along--old boy is right--set of
cads 'suiting an unprotected gal--good night, sir.'

The others picked up their companion out of the gutter, and the whole
lot rolled merrily down the street.

'And this,' said the gentleman, lifting up his face to the sky in
mute appeal to heaven, 'this is the generation which is to carry
on Australia. Oh, Father Adam, what a dissipated family you have
got--ah!--good for a comedy, I think.'

'Oh!' cried Kitty, recognising a familiar remark, 'it's Mr Wopples.'

'The same,' said the airy Theodore, laying his hand on his heart, 'and
you, my dear--why, bless me,' looking closely at her, 'it is the pretty
girl I met in Ballarat--dear, dear--surely you have not come to this.'

'No, no,' said Kitty, quickly, laying her hand on his arm, 'I will tell
you all about it, Mr Wopples; but you must be a friend to me, for I
sadly need one.'

'I will be your friend,' said the actor, emphatically, taking her arm
and walking slowly down the street; 'tell me how I find you thus.'

'You won't tell anyone if I do?' said Kitty, imploringly.

'On the honour of a gentleman,' answered Wopples, with grave dignity.

Kitty told him how she had left Ballarat, but suppressed the name of her
lover, as she did not want any blame to fall on him. But all the rest
she told freely, and when Mr Wopples heard how on that night she had
left the man who had ruined her, he swore a mighty oath.

'Oh, vile human nature,' he said, in a sonorous tone, 'to thus betray
a confiding infant! Where,' he continued, looking inquiringly at the
serene sky, 'where are the thunderbolts of Heaven that they fall not on
such?'

No thunderbolt making its appearance to answer the question, Mr Wopples
told Kitty he would take her home to the family, and as they were just
starting out on tour again, she could come with them.

'But will Mrs Wopples receive me?' asked Kitty, timidly.

'My dear,' said the actor, gravely, 'my wife is a good woman, and a
mother herself, so she can feel for a poor child like you, who has been
betrayed through sheer innocence.'

'You do not despise me?' said Kitty, in a low voice.

'My dear,' answered Wopples, quietly, 'am I so pure myself that I can
judge others? Who am I,' with an oratorical wave of the hand, 'that I
should cast the first stone?--ahem!--from Holy Writ. In future I will
be your father; Mrs Wopples, your mother, and you will have ten brothers
and sisters--all star artistes.'

'How kind you are,' sobbed Kitty, clinging trustfully to him as they
went along.

'I only do unto others as I would be done by,' said Mr Wopples,
solemnly. 'That sentiment,' continued the actor, taking off his hat,
'was uttered by One who, tho' we may believe or disbelieve in His
divinity as a God, will always remain the sublimest type of perfect
manhood the world has ever seen.'

Kitty did not answer, and they walked quickly along; and surely this one
good deed more than compensated for the rest of the actor's failings.



CHAPTER VI

ON CHANGE


Young Australia has a wonderful love for the excitement of
gambling--take him away from the betting ring and he goes straight to
the share market to dabble in gold and silver shares. The Great Humbug
Gold Mining Company is floated on the Melbourne market--a perfect
fortune in itself, which influential men are floating in a kind of
semi-philanthropic manner to benefit mankind at large, and themselves in
particular. Report by competent geologists; rich specimens of the reef
exhibited to the confiding public; company of fifty thousand shares at
a pound each; two shillings on application; two shillings on allotment;
the balance in calls which influential men solemnly assure confiding
public will never be needed. Young Australia sees a chance of making
thousands in a week; buys one thousand shares at four shillings--only
two hundred pounds; shares will rise and Young Australia hopefully looks
forward to pocketing two or three thousand by his modest venture of two
hundred; company floated, shares rising slowly. Young Australia will not
sell at a profit, still dazzled by his chimerical thousands. Calls must
be made to put up machinery; shares have a downward tendency. Never
mind, there will only be one or two calls, so stick to shares as parents
of possible thousands. Machinery erected; now crushing; two or three
ounces to ton a certainty. Shares have an upward tendency; washing
up takes place--two pennyweights to ton. Despair! Shares run down to
nothing, and Young Australia sees his thousands disappear like snow in
the sun. The Great Humbug Reef proves itself worthy of its name, and the
company collapses amid the groans of confiding public and secret joy of
influential men, who have sold at the top price.

Vandeloup knew all about this sort of thing, for he had seen it occur
over and over again in Ballarat and Melbourne. So many came to the
web and never got out alive, yet fresh flies were always to be found.
Vandeloup was of a speculative nature himself, and had he been possessed
of any surplus cash would, no doubt, have risked it in the jugglery of
the share market, but as he had none to spare he stood back and amused
himself with looking at the 'spider and the fly' business which was
constantly going on. Sometimes, indeed, the fly got the better of spider
number one, but was unable to keep away from the web, and was sure to
fall into the web of spider number two.

M. Vandeloup, therefore, considered the whole affair as too risky to
be gone into without unlimited cash; but now he had a chance of making
money, he determined to try his hand at the business. True, he knew that
he was in for a swindle, but then he was behind the scenes, and would
benefit by the knowledge he had gained. If the question at issue had
really been that of getting gold out of the reef and paying dividends
with the profits, Gaston would have snapped his fingers scornfully, and
held aloof; but this was simply a running up of shares by means of a
rich reef being struck. He intended to buy at the present market value,
which was four shillings, and sell as soon as he could make a good
profit--say, at one pound--so there was not much chance of him losing
his money. The shares would probably drop again when the pocket of gold
was worked out, but then that would be none of his affair, as he would
by that time have sold out and made his pile. M. Vandeloup was a fly who
was going straight into the webs of stockbroking spiders, but then he
knew as much about this particular web as the spiders themselves.

Full of his scheme to make money, Vandeloup started for town to see a
broker--first, however, having settled with Mrs Pulchop over Kitty's
disappearance. He had found a letter from Kitty in the bedroom, in which
she had bidden him good-bye for ever, but this he did not show to Mrs
Pulchop, merely stating to that worthy lady that his 'wife' had left
him.

'And it ain't to be wondered at, the outraged angel,' she said to
Gaston, as he stood at the door, faultlessly dressed, ready to go into
town; 'the way you treated her were shameful.'

Gaston shrugged his shoulders, lit a cigarette, and smiled at Mrs
Pulchop.

'My dear lady,' he said, blandly, 'pray attend to your medicine bottles
and leave my domestic affairs alone; you certainly understand the one,
but I doubt your ability to come to any conclusion regarding the other.'

'Fine words don't butter no parsnips,' retorted Mrs Pulchop, viciously;
'and if Pulchop weren't an Apoller, he had a kind heart.'

'Spare me these domestic stories, please,' said Vandeloup, coldly, 'they
do not interest me in the least; since my "wife",' with a sneer, 'has
gone, I will leave your hospitable roof. I will send for all my property
either today or to-morrow, and if you make out your account in the
meantime, my messenger will pay it. Good day!' and without another
word Vandeloup walked slowly off down the path, leaving Mrs Pulchop
speechless with indignation.

He went into town first, to the City of Melbourne Bank, and cashed
Meddlechip's cheque for six hundred pounds, then, calling a hansom, he
drove along to the Hibernian Bank, where he had an account, and paid
it into his credit, reserving ten pounds for his immediate use. Then
he reentered his hansom, and went along to the office of a stockbroker,
called Polglaze, who was a member of 'The Bachelors', and in whose hands
Vandeloup intended to place his business.

Polglaze was a short, stout man, scrupulously neatly dressed, with iron
grey hair standing straight up, and a habit of dropping out his words
one at a time, so that the listener had to construct quite a little
history between each, in order to arrive at their meaning, and the
connection they had with one another.

'Morning!' said Polglaze, letting the salutation fly out of his mouth
rapidly, and then closing it again in case any other word might be
waiting ready to pop out unknown to him.

Vandeloup sat down and stated his business briefly.

'I want you to buy me some Magpie Reef shares,' he said, leaning on the
table.

'Many?' dropped out of Polglaze's mouth, and then it shut again with a
snap. 'Depends on the price,' replied Vandeloup, with a shrug; 'I see in
the papers they are four shillings.'

Mr Polglaze took up his share book, and rapidly turned over the
leaves--found what he wanted, and nodded.

'Oh!' said Vandeloup, making a rapid mental calculation, 'then buy
me two thousand five hundred. That will be about five hundred pounds'
worth.'

Mr Polglaze nodded; then whistled.

'Your commission, I presume,' said Vandeloup, making another
calculation, 'will be threepence?'

'Sixpence,' interrupted the stockbroker.

'Oh, I thought it was threepence,' answered Vandeloup, quietly;
'however, that does not make any difference to me. Your commission at
that rate will be twelve pounds ten shillings?'

Polglaze nodded again, and sat looking at Vandeloup like a stony
mercantile sphinx.

'If you will, then, buy me these shares,' said Vandeloup, rising, and
taking up his gloves and hat, 'when am I to come along and see you?'

'Four,' said Polglaze.

Today?' inquired Vandeloup.

A nod from the stockbroker.

'Very well,' said Vandeloup, quietly, 'I'll give you a cheque for the
amount, then. There's nothing more to be said, I believe?' and he walked
over to the door.

'Say!' from Polglaze.

'Yes,' replied Gaston, indolently, swinging his stick to and fro.

'New?' inquired the stockbroker.

'You mean to this sort of thing?' said Vandeloup, looking at him, and
receiving a nod in token of acquiescence, added, 'entirely.'

'Risky,' dropped from the Polglaze mouth. 'I never knew a gold mine that
wasn't,' retorted Vandeloup, dryly.

'Bad,' in an assertive tone, from Polglaze.

'This particular mine, I suppose you mean?' said Gaston, with a yawn,
'very likely it is. However, I'm willing to take the risk. Good day! See
you at four,' and with a careless nod, M. Vandeloup lounged out of the
office.

He walked along Collins Street, met a few friends, and kept a look-out
for Kitty. He, however, did not see her, but there was a surprise in
store for him, for turning round into Swanston Street, he came across
Archie McIntosh. Yes, there he was, with his grim, severe Scotch face,
with the white frill round it, and Gaston smiled as he saw the old man,
dressed in rigid broadcloth, casting disproving looks on the pretty
girls walking along.

'A set o' hizzies,' growled the amiable Archie to himself, 'prancin'
alang wi' their gew-gaws an' fine claes, like war horses--the daughters
o' Zion that walk wi' mincin' steps an' tinklin' ornaments.'

'How do you do?' said Vandeloup, touching the broadcloth shoulder; upon
which McIntosh turned.

'Lord save us!' he ejaculated, grimly, 'it's yon French body. An' hoo's
a' wi' ye, laddie? Eh, but ye're brawly dressed, my young man,' with a
disproving look; 'I'm hopin' they duds are paid for.'

'Of course they are,' replied Vandeloup, gaily, 'do you think I stole
them?'

'Weel, I'll no gae sa far as that,' remarked Archie, cautiously; 'maybe
ye have dwelt by the side o' mony waters, an' flourished. If he ken the
Screepture ye'll see God helps those wha help themselves.'

'That means you do all the work and give God the credit,' retorted
Gaston, with a sneer; 'I know all about that.'

'Ah, ye'll gang tae the pit o' Tophet when ye dee,' said Mr McIntosh,
who had heard this remark with horror; 'an' ye'll no be sae ready wi'
your tongue there, I'm thinkin'; but ye are not speerin aboot Mistress
Villiers.'

'Why, is she in town?' asked Vandeloup, eagerly.

'Ay, and Seliny wi' her,' answered Archie, fondling his frill; 'she's
varra rich noo, as ye've nae doot heard. Ay, ay,' he went on, 'she's
gotten a braw hoose doon at St Kilda, and she's going to set up a
carriage, ye ken. She tauld me,' pursued Mr McIntosh, sourly, looking
at Vandeloup, 'if I saw ye I was to be sure to tell ye to come an' see
her.'

'Present my compliments to Madame,' said Vandeloup, quickly, 'and I will
wait on her as soon as possible.'

'Losh save us, laddie,' said McIntosh, irritably, 'you're as fu' o' fine
wards as a play-actor. Have ye seen onything doon in this pit o' Tophet
o' the bairn that rin away?'

'Oh, Miss Marchurst!' said Vandeloup, smoothly, ready with a lie at
once. 'No, I'm sorry to say I've never set eyes on her.'

'The mistress is joost daft aboot her,' observed McIntosh, querulously;
'and she's ganging tae look all thro' the toun tae find the puir wee
thing.'

'I hope she will!' said M. Vandeloup, who devoutly hoped she wouldn't.
'Will you come and have a glass of wine, Mr McIntosh?'

Til hae a wee drappy o' whusky if ye've got it gude,' said McIntosh,
cautiously, 'but I dinna care for they wines that sour on a body's
stomach.'

McIntosh having thus graciously assented, Vandeloup took him up to
the Club, and introduced him all round as the manager of the famous
Pactolus. All the young men were wonderfully taken up with Archie and
his plain speaking, and had Mr McIntosh desired he could have drunk
oceans of his favourite beverage. However, being a Scotchman and
cautious, he took very little, and left Vandeloup to go down to Madame
Midas at St Kilda, and bearing a message from the Frenchman that he
would call there the next day.

Archie having departed, Vandeloup got through the rest of the day as
he best could. He met Mr Wopples in the street, who told him how he had
found Kitty, quite unaware that the young man before him was the villain
who had betrayed the girl. Vandeloup was delighted to think that Kitty
had not mentioned his name, and quite approved of Mr Wopples' intention
to take the girl on tour. Having thus arranged for Kitty's future,
Gaston went along to his broker, and found that the astute Polglaze had
got him his shares.

'Going up,' said Polglaze, as he handed the scrip to Vandeloup and got a
cheque in exchange.

'Oh, indeed!' said Vandeloup, with a smile. 'I suppose my two friends
have begun their little game already,' he thought, as he slipped the
scrip into his breast pocket.

'Information?' asked Polglaze, as Vandeloup was going.

'Oh! you'd like to know where I got it,' said M. Vandeloup, amiably.
'Very sorry I can't tell you; but you see, my dear sir, I am not a
woman, and can keep a secret.'

Vandeloup walked out, and Polglaze looked after him with a puzzled look,
then summed up his opinion in one word, sharp, incisive, and to the
point--

'Clever!' said Polglaze, and put the cheque in his safe.

Vandeloup strolled along the street thinking.

'Bebe is out of my way,' he thought, with a smile; 'I have a small
fortune in my pocket, and,' he continued, thoughtfully, 'Madame Midas is
in Melbourne. I think now,' said M. Vandeloup, with another smile, 'that
I have conquered the blind goddess.'



CHAPTER VII

THE OPULENCE OF MADAME MIDAS


A wealthy man does not know the meaning of the word friendship. He is
not competent to judge, for his wealth precludes him giving a proper
opinion. Smug-faced philanthropists can preach comfortable doctrines in
pleasant rooms with well-spread tables and good clothing; they can talk
about human nature being unjustly accused, and of the kindly impulses
and good thoughts in everyone's breasts. Pshaw! anyone can preach
thus from an altitude of a few thousands a year, but let these same
self-complacent kind-hearted gentlemen descend in the social scale--let
them look twice at a penny before spending it--let them face persistent
landladies, exorbitant landlords, or the bitter poverty of the streets,
and they will not talk so glibly of human nature and its inherent
kindness. No; human nature is a sort of fetish which is credited with
a great many amiable qualities it never possesses, and though there
are exceptions to the general rule, Balzac's aphorism on mankind that
'Nature works by self-interest,' still holds good today.

Madame Midas, however, had experienced poverty and the coldness of
friends, so was completely disillusionised as to the disinterested
motives of the people who now came flocking around her. She was very
wealthy, and determined to stop in Melbourne for a year, and then go
home to Europe, so to this end she took a house at St Kilda, which had
been formerly occupied by Mark Frettlby, the millionaire, who had been
mixed up in the famous hansom cab murder nearly eighteen months before.
His daughter, Mrs Fitzgerald, was in Ireland with her husband, and had
given instructions to her agents to let the house furnished as it stood,
but such a large rent was demanded, that no one felt inclined to give
it till Mrs Villiers appeared on the scene. The house suited her, as
she did not want to furnish one of her own, seeing she was only going to
stop a year, so she saw Thinton and Tarbet, who had the letting of
the place, and took it for a year. The windows were flung open, the
furniture brushed and renovated, and the solitary charwoman who had been
ruler in the lonely rooms so long, was dismissed, and her place taken by
a whole retinue of servants. Madame Midas intended to live in style,
so went to work over the setting up of her establishment in such an
extravagant manner that Archie remonstrated. She took his interference
in a good humoured way, but still arranged things as she intended; and
when her house was ready, waited for her friends to call on her, and
prepared to amuse herself with the comedy of human life. She had not
long to wait, for a perfect deluge of affectionate people rolled
down upon her. Many remembered her--oh, quite well--when she was
the beautiful Miss Curtis; and then her husband--that dreadful
Villiers--they hoped he was dead--squandering her fortune as he had
done--they had always been sorry for her, and now she was rich--that
lovely Pactolus--indeed, she deserved it all--she would marry, of
course--oh, but indeed, she must. And so the comedy went on, and all the
actors flirted, and ogled, and nodded, and bowed, till Madame Midas was
quite sick of the falseness and frivolity of the whole thing. She knew
these people, with their simpering and smiling, would visit her and
eat her dinners and drink her wines, and then go away and abuse her
thoroughly. But then Madame Midas never expected anything else, so she
received them with smiles, saw through all their little ways, and when
she had amused herself sufficiently with their antics, she let them go.

Vandeloup called on Madame Midas the day after she arrived, and Mrs
Villiers was delighted to see him. Having an object in view, of course
Gaston made himself as charming as possible, and assisted Madame to
arrange her house, told her about the people who called on her, and made
cynical remarks about them, all of which amused Madame Midas mightily.
She grew weary of the inane gabble and narrow understandings of people,
and it was quite a relief for her to turn to Vandeloup, with his keen
tongue and clever brains. Gaston was not a charitable talker--few really
clever talkers are--but he saw through everyone with the uttermost ease
and summed them up in a sharp incisive way, which had at least the merit
of being clever. Madame Midas liked to hear him talk, and seeing what
humbugs the people who surrounded her were, and how well she knew their
motives in courting her for her wealth, it is not to be wondered at that
she should have been amused at having all their little weaknesses laid
bare and classified by such a master of satire as Vandeloup. So they sat
and watched the comedy and the unconscious actors playing their parts,
and felt that the air was filled with heavy sensuous perfume, and the
lights were garish, and that there was wanting entirely that keen cool
atmosphere which Mallock calls 'the ozone of respectability'.

Vandeloup had prospered in his little venture in the mining market, for,
true to the prediction of Mr Barraclough--who, by the way, was very
much astonished at the sudden demand for shares by Polglaze, and vainly
pumped that reticent individual to find out what he was up to--the
Magpie Reef shares ran up rapidly. A telegram was published from the
manager stating a rich reef had been struck. Specimens of the very
richest kind were displayed in Melbourne, and the confiding public
suddenly woke to the fact that a golden tide was flowing past their
doors. They rushed the share market, and in two weeks the Magpie Reef
shares ran from four shillings to as many pounds. Vandeloup intended
to sell at one pound, but when he saw the rapid rise and heard everyone
talking about this Reef, which was to be a second Long Tunnel, he held
his shares till they touched four pounds, then, quite satisfied with his
profit, he sold out at once and pocketed nearly ten thousand pounds, so
that he was provided for the rest of his life. The shares ran up
still higher, to four pounds ten shillings, then dropped to three, in
consequence of certain rumours that the pocket of gold was worked out.
Then another rich lead was struck, and they ran up again to five pounds,
and afterwards sank to two pounds, which gradually became their regular
price in the market. That Barraclough and his friend did well was
sufficiently proved by the former taking a trip to Europe, while his
friend bought a station and set up as a squatter. They, however, never
knew how cleverly M. Vandeloup had turned their conversation to his
advantage, and that young gentleman, now that he had made a decent sum,
determined to touch gold mining no more, and, unlike many people, he
kept his word.

Now that he was a man of means, Vandeloup half decided to go to America,
as a larger field for a gentleman of his brilliant qualities, but
the arrival of Madame Midas in Melbourne made him alter his mind. Her
husband was no doubt dead, so Gaston thought that as soon as she had
settled down he would begin to pay his court to her, and without doubt
would be accepted, for this confident young man never for a moment
dreamed of failure. Meanwhile he sent all Kitty's wardrobe after her as
she went with the Wopples family, and the poor girl, taking this as a
mark of renewed affection, wrote him a very tearful little note, which
M. Vandeloup threw into the fire. Then he looked about and ultimately
got a very handsome suite of rooms in Clarendon Street, East Melbourne.
He furnished these richly, and having invested his money in good
securities, prepared to enjoy himself.

Kitty, meanwhile, had become a great favourite with the Wopples family,
and they made a wonderful pet of her. Of course, being in Rome, she did
as the Romans did, and went on the stage as Miss Kathleen Wopples, being
endowed with the family name for dramatic reasons. The family were now
on tour among the small towns of Victoria, and seemed to be well-known,
as each member got a reception when he or she appeared on the stage. Mr
Theodore Wopples used to send his agent ahead to engage the theatre--or
more often a hall--bill the town, and publish sensational little notices
in the local papers. Then when the family arrived Mr Wopples, who was
really a gentleman and well-educated, called on all the principal people
of the town and so impressed them with the high class character of the
entertainment that he never failed to secure their patronage. He also
had a number of artful little schemes which he called 'wheezes', the
most successful of these being a lecture on The Religious Teaching of
Shakespeare', which he invariably delivered on a Sunday afternoon in
the theatre of any town he happened to be in, and not infrequently when
requested occupied the pulpit and preached capital sermons. By these
means Mr Wopples kept up the reputation of the family, and the upper
classes of all the towns invariably supported the show, while the lower
classes came as a matter of course. Mr Wopples, however, was equally as
clever in providing a bill of fare as in inducing the public to come to
the theatre, and the adaptability of the family was really wonderful.
One night they would play farcical comedy; then Hamlet, reduced to four
acts by Mr Wopples, would follow on the second night; the next night
burlesque would reign supreme; and when the curtain arose on the fourth
night Mr Wopples and the star artistes would be acting melodrama, and
throw one another off bridges and do strong starvation business with
ragged clothes amid paper snowstorms.

Kitty turned out to be a perfect treasure, as her pretty face and
charming voice soon made her a favourite, and when in burlesque she
played Princess to Fanny Wopples' Prince, there was sure to be a crowded
house and lots of applause. Kitty's voice was clear and sweet as a
lark's, and her execution something wonderful, so Mr Wopples christened
her the Australian Nightingale, and caused her to be so advertised in
the papers. Moreover, her dainty appearance, and a certain dash and
abandon she had with her, carried the audience irresistibly away, and
had Fanny Wopples not been a really good girl, she would have been
jealous of the success achieved by the new-comer. She, however, taught
Kitty to dance breakdowns, and at Warrnambool they had a benefit, when
'Faust, M.D.' was produced, and Fanny sang her great success, 'I've just
had a row with mamma', and Kitty sang the jewel song from 'Faust' in
a manner worthy of Neilson, as the local critic--who had never heard
Neilson--said the next day. Altogether, Kitty fully repaid the good
action of Mr Wopples by making his tour a wonderful success, and the
family returned to Melbourne in high glee with full pockets.

'Next year,' said Mr Wopples, at a supper which they had to celebrate
the success of their tour, 'we'll have a theatre in Melbourne, and I'll
make it the favourite house of the city, see if I don't.'

It seemed, therefore, as though Kitty had found her vocation, and would
develop into an operatic star, but fate intervened, and Miss Marchurst
retired from the stage, which she had adorned so much. This was due to
Madame Midas, who, driving down Collins Street one day, saw Kitty at the
corner walking with Fanny Wopples. She immediately stopped her carriage,
and alighting therefrom, went straight up to the girl, who, turning and
seeing her for the first time, grew deadly pale.

'Kitty, my dear,' said Madame, gravely, 'I have been looking for you
vainly for a year--but I have found you at last.'

Kitty's breast was full of conflicting emotions; she thought that Madame
knew all about her intimacy with Vandeloup, and that she would speak
severely to her. Mrs Villiers' next words, however, reassured her.

'You left Ballarat to go on the stage, did you not?' she said kindly,
looking at the girl; 'why did you not come to me?--you knew I was always
your friend.'

'Yes, Madame,' said Kitty, putting out her hand and averting her head,
'I would have come to you, but I thought you would stop me from going.'

'My dear child,' replied Madame, 'I thought you knew me better than
that; what theatre are you at?'

'She's with us,' said Miss Fanny, who had been staring at this grave,
handsomely-dressed lady who had alighted from such a swell carriage; 'we
are the Wopples Family.'

'Ah!' said Mrs Villiers, thinking, 'I remember, you were up at Ballarat
last year. Well, Kitty, will you and your friend drive down to St Kilda
with me, and I'll show you my new house?'

Kitty would have refused, for she was afraid Madame Midas would perhaps
send her back to her father, but the appealing looks of Fanny Wopples,
who had never ridden in a carriage in her life, and was dying to do
so, decided her to accept. So they stepped into the carriage, and Mrs
Villiers told the coachman to drive home.

As they drove along, Mrs Villiers delicately refrained from asking Kitty
any questions about her flight, seeing that a stranger was present, but
determined to find out all about it when she got her alone down at St
Kilda.

Kitty, on her part, was thinking how to baffle Madame's inquiries. She
knew she would be questioned closely by her, and resolved not to tell
more than she could help, as she, curiously enough--considering how he
had treated her--wished to shield Vandeloup. But she still cherished a
tender feeling for the man she loved, and had Vandeloup asked her to go
back and live with him, would, no doubt, have consented. The fact was,
the girl's nature was becoming slightly demoralised, and the Kitty who
sat looking at Madame Midas now--though her face was as pretty, and her
eyes as pure as ever--was not the same innocent Kitty that had visited
the Pactolus, for she had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and was
already cultured in worldly wisdom. Madame, of course, believed that
Kitty had gone from Ballarat straight on to the stage, and never thought
for a moment that for a whole year she had been Vandeloup's mistress,
so when Kitty found this out--as she very soon did--she took the cue at
once, and asserted positively to Madame that she had been on the stage
for eighteen months.

'But how is it,' asked Madame, who believed her fully, 'that I could not
find you?'

'Because I was up the country all the time,' replied Kitty, quickly,
'and of course did not act under my real name.'

'You would not like to go back to your father, I suppose,' suggested
Madame.

Kitty made a gesture of dissent.

'No,' she answered, determinedly; 'I was tired of my father and his
religion; I'm on the stage now, and I mean to stick to it.'

'Kitty! Kitty!' said Madame, sadly, 'you little know the temptations--'

'Oh! yes, I do,' interrupted Kitty, impatiently; 'I've been nearly two
years on the stage, and I have not seen any great wickedness--besides,
I'm always with Mrs Wopples.'

'Then you still mean to be an actress?' asked Madame.

'Yes,' replied Kitty, in a firm voice; 'if I went back to my father, I'd
go mad leading that dull life.'

'But why not stay with me, my dear?' said Mrs Villiers, looking at her;
'I am a lonely woman, as you know, and if you come to me, I will treat
you as a daughter.'

'Ah! how good you are,' cried the girl in a revulsion of feeling,
falling on her friend's neck; 'but indeed I cannot leave the stage--I'm
too fond of it.'

Madame sighed, and gave up the argument for a time, then showed the two
girls all over the house, and after they had dinner with her, she sent
them back to town in her carriage, with strict injunctions to Kitty to
come down next day and bring Mr Wopples with her. When the two girls
reached the hotel where the family was staying, Fanny gave her father
a glowing account of the opulence of Madame Midas, and Mr Wopples was
greatly interested in the whole affair. He was grave, however, when
Kitty spoke to him privately of what Madame had said to her, and asked
her if she would not like to accept Mrs Villiers' offer. Kitty, however,
said she would remain on the stage, and as Wopples was to see Madame
Midas next day, made him promise he would say nothing about having
found her on the streets, or of her living with a lover. Wopples, who
thoroughly understood the girl's desire to hide her shame from her
friends, agreed to this, so Kitty went to bed confident that she had
saved Vandeloup's name from being dragged into the affair.

Wopples saw Madame next day, and a long talk ensued, which ended in
Kitty agreeing to stay six months with Mrs Villiers, and then, if she
still wished to continue on the stage, she was to go to Mr Wopples.
On the other hand, in consideration of Wopples losing the services of
Kitty, Madame promised that next year she would give him sufficient
money to start a theatre in Melbourne. So both parted mutually
satisfied. Kitty made presents to all the family, who were very sorry to
part with her, and then took up her abode with Mrs Villiers, as a kind
of adopted daughter, and was quite prepared to play her part in the
comedy of fashion.

So Madame Midas had been near the truth, yet never discovered it, and
sent a letter to Vandeloup asking him to come to dinner and meet an old
friend, little thinking how old and intimate a friend Kitty was to the
young man.

It was, as Mr Wopples would have said, a highly dramatic situation, but,
alas, that the confiding nature of Madame Midas should thus have been
betrayed, not only by Vandeloup, but by Kitty herself--the very girl
whom, out of womanly compassion, she took to her breast.

And yet the world talks about the inherent goodness of human nature.



CHAPTER VIII

M. VANDELOUP IS SURPRISED


Owing to the quiet life Kitty had led since she came to Melbourne,
and the fact that her appearance on the stage had taken place in the
country, she felt quite safe when making her appearance in Melbourne
society that no one would recognise her or know anything of her past
life. It was unlikely she would meet with any of the Pulchop family
again, and she knew Mr Wopples would hold his tongue regarding his first
meeting with her, so the only one who could reveal anything about her
would be Vandeloup, and he would certainly be silent for his own sake,
as she knew he valued the friendship of Madame Midas too much to lose
it. Nevertheless she awaited his coming in considerable trepidation, as
she was still in love with him, and was nervous as to what reception
she would meet with. Perhaps now that she occupied a position as Mrs
Villiers' adopted daughter he would marry her, but, at all events,
when she met him she would know exactly how he felt towards her by his
demeanour.

Vandeloup, on the other hand, was quite unaware of the surprise in store
for him, and thought that the old friend he was to meet would be some
Ballarat acquaintance of his own and Madame's. In his wildest flight
of fancy he never thought it would be Kitty, else his cool nonchalance
would for once have been upset at the thought of the two women he was
interested in being under the same roof. However, where ignorance is
bliss--well M. Vandeloup, after dressing himself carefully in evening
dress, put on his hat and coat, and, the evening being a pleasant one,
thought he would stroll through the Fitzroy Gardens down to the station.

It was pleasant in the gardens under the golden light of the sunset, and
the green arcades of trees looked delightfully cool after the glare of
the dusty streets. Vandeloup, strolling along idly, felt a touch on his
shoulder and wheeled round suddenly, for with his past life ever before
him he always had a haunting dread of being recaptured.

The man, however, who had thus drawn his attention was none other than
Pierre Lemaire, who stood in the centre of the broad asphalt path,
dirty, ragged and disreputable-looking. He had not altered much since he
left Ballarat, save that he looked more dilapidated-looking, but stood
there in his usual sullen manner, with his hat drawn down over his eyes.
Some stray wisps of grass showed that he had been camping out all the
hot day on the green turf under the shadow of the trees, and it was easy
to see from his appearance what a vagrant he was. Vandeloup was annoyed
at the meeting and cast a rapid look around to see if he was observed.
The few people, however, passing were too intent on their own business
to give more than a passing glance at the dusty tramp and the young man
in evening dress talking to him, so Vandeloup was reassured.

'Well, my friend,' he said, sharply, to the dumb man, 'what do you
want?'

Pierre put his hand in his pocket.

'Oh, of course,' replied M. Vandeloup, mockingly, 'money, money, always
money; do you think I'm a bank, always to be drawn on like this?'

The dumb man made no sign that he had heard, but stood sullenly rocking
himself to and fro an'd chewing a wisp of the grass he had picked off
his coat.

'Here,' said the young man, taking out a sovereign and giving it to
Pierre; 'take this just now and don't bother me, or upon my word,' with
a disdainful look, 'I shall positively have to hand you over to the
law.'

Pierre glanced up suddenly, and Vandeloup caught the gleam of his eyes
under the shadow of the hat.

'Oh! you think it will be dangerous for me,' he said, in a gay tone;
'not at all, I assure you. I am a gentleman, and rich; you are a pauper,
and disreputable. Who will believe your word against mine? My faith!
your assurance is quite refreshing. Now, go away, and don't trouble me
again, or,' with a sudden keen glance, 'I will do as I say.'

He nodded coolly to the dumb man, and strode gaily along under the shade
of the heavily foliaged oaks, while Pierre looked at the sovereign,
slipped it into his pocket, and slouched off in the opposite direction
without even a glance at his patron.

At the top of the street Vandeloup stepped into a cab, and telling the
man to drive to the St Kilda Station, in Elizabeth Street, went off into
a brown study. Pierre annoyed him seriously, as he never seemed to get
rid of him, and the dumb man kept turning up every now and then like the
mummy at the Egyptian feast to remind him of unpleasant things.

'Confound him!' muttered Vandeloup, angrily, as he alighted at the
station and paid the cabman, 'he's more trouble than Bebe was; she did
take the hint and go, but this man, my faith!' shrugging his shoulders,
'he's the devil himself for sticking.'

All the way down to St Kilda his reflections were of the same unpleasant
nature, and he cast about in his own mind how he could get rid of this
pertinacious friend. He could not turn him off openly, as Pierre might
take offence, and as he knew more of M. Vandeloup's private life than
that young gentleman cared about, it would not do to run the risk of an
exposure.

'There's only one thing to be done,' said Gaston, quietly, as he walked
down to Mrs Villiers' house; 'I will try my luck at marrying Madame
Midas; if she consents, we can go away to Europe as man and wife; if
she does not I will go to America, and, in either case, Pierre will lose
trace of me.'

With this comfortable reflection he went into the house and was shown
into the drawing room by the servant. There were no lights in the room,
as it was not sufficiently dark for them, and Vandeloup smiled as he saw
a fire in the grate.

'My faith!' he said to himself, 'Madame is as chilly as ever.'

The servant had retired, and he was all by himself in this large room,
with the subdued twilight all through it, and the flicker of the flames
on the ceiling. He went to the fire more from habit than anything else,
and suddenly came on a big armchair, drawn up close to the side, in
which a woman was sitting.

'Ah! the sleeping beauty,' said Vandeloup, carelessly; 'in these cases
the proper thing to do in order to wake the lady is to kiss her.'

He was, without doubt, an extremely audacious young man, and though he
did not know who the young lady was, would certainly have put his design
into execution, had not the white figure suddenly rose and confronted
him. The light from the fire was fair on her face, and with a sudden
start Vandeloup saw before him the girl he had ruined and deserted.

'Bebe?' he gasped, recoiling a step.

'Yes!' said Kitty, in an agitated tone, 'your mistress and your victim.'

'Bah!' said Gaston, coolly, having recovered from the first shock of
surprise. 'That style suits Sarah Bernhardt, not you, my dear. The first
act of this comedy is excellent, but it is necessary the characters
should know one another in order to finish the play.'

'Ah!' said Kitty, with a bitter smile, 'do I not know you too well, as
the man who promised me marriage and then broke his word? You forgot all
your vows to me.'

'My dear child,' replied Gaston leisurely, leaning up against the
mantelpiece, 'if you had read Balzac you would discover that he says,
"Life would be intolerable without a certain amount of forgetting." I
must say,' smiling, 'I agree with the novelist.'

Kitty looked at him as he stood there cool and complacent, and threw
herself back into the chair angrily.

'Just the same,' she muttered restlessly, 'just the same.'

'Of course,' replied Vandeloup, raising his eyebrows in surprise. 'You
have only been away from me six weeks, and it takes longer than that to
alter any one. By the way,' he went on smoothly, 'how have you been all
this time? I have no doubt your tour has been as adventurous as that of
Gil Bias.'

'No, it has not,' replied Kitty, clenching her hands. 'You never cared
what became of me, and had not Mr Wopples met me in the street on that
fearful night, God knows where I would have been now.'

'I can tell you,' said Gaston, coolly, taking a seat. 'With me. You
would have soon got tired of the poverty of the streets, and come back
to your cage.'

'My cage, indeed!' she echoed, bitterly, tapping the ground with her
foot. 'Yes, a cage, though it was a gilded one.'

'How Biblical you are getting,' said the young man, ironically; 'but
kindly stop speaking in parables, and tell me what position we are to
occupy to each other. As formerly?'

'My God, no!' she flashed out suddenly.

'So much the better,' he answered, bowing. 'We will obliterate the last
year from our memories, and I will meet you to-night for the first time
since you left Ballarat. Of course,' he went on, rather anxiously, 'you
have told Madame nothing?'

'Only what suited me,' replied the girl, coldly, stung by the coldness
and utter heartlessness of this man.

'Oh!' with a smile. 'Did it include my name?'

'No,' curtly.

'Ah!' with a long indrawn breath, 'you are more sensible than I gave you
credit for.'

Kitty rose to her feet and crossed rapidly over to where he sat calm and
smiling.

'Gaston Vandeloup!' she hissed in his ear, while her face was quite
distorted by the violence of her passion, 'when I met you I was an
innocent girl--you ruined me, and then cast me off as soon as you grew
weary of your toy. I thought you loved me, and,' with a stifled sob,
'God help me, I love you still.'

'Yes, my Bebe,' he said, in a caressing tone, taking her hand.

'No! no,' she cried, wrenching them away, while an angry spot of colour
glowed on her cheek, 'I loved you as you were--not as you are now--we
are done with sentiment, M. Vandeloup,' she said, sneering, 'and now our
relations to one another will be purely business ones.'

He bowed and smiled.

'So glad you understand the position,' he said, blandly; 'I see the age
of miracles is not yet past when a woman can talk sense.'

'You won't disturb me with your sneers,' retorted the girl, glaring
fiercely at him out of the gathering gloom in the room; 'I am not the
innocent girl I once was.'

'It is needless to tell me that,' he said, coarsely.

She drew herself up at the extreme insult.

'Have a care, Gaston,' she muttered, hurriedly, 'I know more about your
past life than you think.'

He rose from his seat and approached his face, now white as her own, to
hers.

'What do you know?' he asked, in a low, passionate voice.

'Enough to be dangerous to you,' she retorted, defiantly.

They both looked at one another steadily, but the white face of the
woman did not blench before the scintillations of his eyes.

'What you know I don't know,' he said, steadily; 'but whatever it is,
keep it to yourself, or--,' catching her wrist.

'Or what?' she asked, boldly.

He threw her away from him with a laugh, and the sombre fire died out of
his eyes.

'Bah!' he said, gaily, 'our comedy is turning into a tragedy; I am as
foolish as you; I think,' significantly, 'we understand one another.'

'Yes, I think we do,' she answered, calmly, the colour coming back to
her cheek. 'Neither of us are to refer to the past, and we both go on
our different roads unhindered.'

'Mademoiselle Marchurst,' said Vandeloup, ceremoniously, 'I am delighted
to meet you after a year's absence--come,' with a gay laugh, 'let us
begin the comedy thus, for here,' he added quickly, as the door opened,
'here comes the spectators.'

'Well, young people,' said Madame's voice, as she came slowly into the
room, 'you are all in the dark; ring the bell for lights, M. Vandeloup.'

'Certainly, Madame,' he answered, touching the electric button, 'Miss
Marchurst and myself were renewing our former friendship.'

'How do you think she is looking?' asked Madame, as the servant came in
and lit the gas.

'Charming,' replied Vandeloup, looking at the dainty little figure in
white standing under the blaze of the chandelier; 'she is more beautiful
than ever.'

Kitty made a saucy little curtsey, and burst into a musical laugh.

'He is just the same, Madame,' she said merrily to the tall, grave
woman in black velvet, who stood looking at her affectionately, 'full
of compliments, and not meaning one; but when is dinner to be ready?'
pathetically, 'I'm dying of starvation.'

'I hope you have peaches, Madame,' said Vandeloup, gaily; 'the first
time I met Mademoiselle she was longing for peaches.'

'I am unchanged in that respect,' retorted Kitty, brightly; 'I adore
peaches still.'

'I am just waiting for Mr Calton,' said Madame Midas, looking at her
watch; 'he ought to be here by now.'

'Is that the lawyer, Madame?' asked Vandeloup.

'Yes,' she replied, quietly, 'he is a most delightful man.'

'So I have heard,' answered Vandeloup, nonchalantly, 'and he had
something to do with a former owner of this house, I think.'

'Oh, don't talk of that,' said Mrs Villiers, nervously; 'the first time
I took the house, I heard all about the Hansom Cab murder.'

'Why, Madame, you are not nervous,' said Kitty, gaily.

'No, my dear,' replied the elder, quietly, 'but I must confess that for
some reason or another I have been a little upset since coming here; I
don't like being alone.'

'You shall never be that,' said Kitty, fondly nestling to her.

'Thank you, puss,' said Madame, tapping her cheek; 'but I am nervous,'
she said, rapidly; 'at night especially. Sometimes I have to get Selina
to come into my room and stay all night.'

'Madame Midas nervous,' thought Vandeloup to himself; 'then I can guess
the reason; she is afraid of her husband coming back to her.'

Just at this moment the servant announced Mr Calton, and he entered,
with his sharp, incisive face, looking clever and keen.

'I must apologise for being late, Mrs Villiers,' he said, shaking hands
with his hostess; 'but business, you know, the pleasure of business.'

'Now,' said Madame, quickly, 'I hope you have come to the business of
pleasure.'

'Very epigrammatic, my dear lady,' said Calton, in his high, clear
voice; 'pray introduce me.'

Madame did so, and they all went to dinner, Madame with Calton and Kitty
following with Vandeloup.

'This,' observed Calton, when they were all seated at the dinner table,
'is the perfection of dining; for we are four, and the guests, according
to an epicure, should never be less than the Graces nor greater than the
Muses.'

And a very merry little dinner it was. All four were clever talkers,
and Vandeloup and Calton being pitted against one another, excelled
themselves; witty remarks, satirical sayings, and well-told stories were
constantly coming from their lips, and they told their stories as their
own and did not father them on Sydney Smith.

'If Sydney Smith was alive,' said Calton, in reference to this, 'he
would be astonished at the number of stories he did not tell.'

'Yes,' chimed in Vandeloup, gaily, 'and astounded at their brilliancy.'

'After all,' said Madame, smiling, 'he's a sheet-anchor for some people;
for the best original story may fail, a dull one ascribed to Sydney
Smith must produce a laugh.'

'Why?' asked Kitty, in some wonder.

'Because,' explained Calton, gravely, 'society goes mainly by tradition,
and our grandmothers having laughed at Sydney Smith's jokes, they must
necessarily be amusing. Depend upon it, jokes can be sanctified by time
quite as much as creeds.'

'They are more amusing, at all events,' said Madame, satirically.
'Creeds generally cause quarrels.'

Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

'And quarrels generally cause stories,' he said, smiling; 'it is the law
of compensation.'

They then went to the drawing-room and Kitty and Vandeloup both sang,
and treated one another in a delightfully polite way. Madame Midas and
Calton were both clever, but how much cleverer were the two young people
at the piano.

'Are you going to Meddlechip's ball?' said Calton to Madame.

'Oh, yes,' she answered, nodding her head, 'I and Miss Marchurst are
both going.'

'Who is Mr Meddlechip?' asked Kitty, swinging round on the piano-stool.

'He is the most charitable man in Melbourne,' said Gaston, with a faint
sneer.

'Great is Diana of the Ephesians,' said Calton, mockingly. 'Because
Mr Meddlechip suffers from too much money, and has to get rid of it to
prevent himself being crushed like Tarpeia by the Sabine shields, he is
called charitable.'

'He does good, though, doesn't he?' asked Madame.

'See advertisement,' scoffed Calton. 'Oh, yes! he will give thousands of
pounds for any public object, but private charity is a waste of money in
his eyes.'

'You are very hard on him,' said Madame Midas, with a laugh.

'Ah! Mr Calton believes as I do,' cried Vandeloup, 'that it's no good
having friends unless you're privileged to abuse them.'

'It's one you take full advantage of, then,' observed Kitty, saucily.

'I always take what I can get,' he returned, mockingly; whereon she
shivered, and Calton saw it.

'Ah!' said that astute reader of character to himself, 'there's
something between those two. 'Gad! I'll cross-examine my French friend.'

They said good-night to the ladies, and walked to the St Kilda station,
from thence took the train to town, and Calton put into force his
cross-examination. He might as well have tried his artful questions on
a rock as on Vandeloup, for that clever young gentleman saw through the
barrister at once, and baffled him at every turn with his epigrammatic
answers and consummate coolness.

'I confess,' said Calton, when they said good-night to one another, 'I
confess you puzzle me.'

'Language,' observed M. Vandeloup, with a smile, 'was given to us to
conceal our thoughts. Good night!'

And they parted.

'The comedy is over for the night,' thought Gaston as he walked along,
'and it was so true to nature that the spectators never thought it was
art.'

He was wrong, for Calton did.



CHAPTER IX

A PROFESSIONAL PHILANTHROPIST


We have professional diners-out, professional beauties, professional
Christians, then why not professional philanthropists? This brilliant
century of ours has nothing to do with the word charity, as it savours
too much of stealthy benevolence, so it has substituted in its place the
long word philanthropy, which is much more genteel and comprehensive.
Charity, the meekest of the Christian graces, has been long since
dethroned, and her place is taken by the blatant braggard Philanthropy,
who does his good deeds in a most ostentatious manner, and loudly
invites the world to see his generosity, and praise him for it. Charity,
modestly hooded, went into the houses of the poor, and tendered her
gifts with smiles. Philanthropy now builds almshouses and hospitals,
and rails at poverty if it has too much pride to occupy them. And
what indeed, has poverty to do with pride?--it's far too sumptuous and
expensive an article, and can only be possessed by the rich, who can
afford to wear it because it is paid for. Mr Meddlechip was rich, so
he bought a large stock of pride, and wore it everywhere. It was not
personal pride--he was not good-looking; it was not family pride--he
never had a grandfather; nor was it pecuniary pride--he had too much
money for that. But it was a mean, sneaking, insinuating pride that
wrapped him round like a cloak, and pretended to be very humble, and
only holding its money in trust for the poor. The poor ye have always
with you--did not Mr Meddlechip know it? Ask the old men and women
in the almshouses, and they would answer yes; but ask the squalid
inhabitants of the slums, and they would probably say, 'Meddlechip,
'o's 'e?' Not that the great Ebenezer Meddlechip was unknown--oh,
dear, no--he was a representative colonial; he sat in Parliament, and
frequently spoke at those enlarged vestry meetings about the prosperity
of the country. He laid foundation stones. He took the chair at public
meetings. In fact, he had his finger in every public pie likely to bring
him into notoriety; but not in private pies, oh, dear, no; he never did
good by stealth and blush to find it fame. Any blushes he might have had
would have been angry ones at his good deed not being known.

He had come in the early days of the colony, and made a lot of money,
being a shrewd man, and one who took advantage of every tide in the
affairs of men. He was honest, that is honest as our present elastic
acceptation of the word goes--and when he had accumulated a fortune he
set to work to buy a few things. He bought a grand house at Toorak,
then he bought a wife to do the honours of the grand house, and when
his domestic affairs were quite settled, he bought popularity, which
is about the cheapest thing anyone can buy. When the Society for the
Supplying of Aborigines with White Waistcoats was started he headed the
list with one thousand pounds--bravo, Meddlechip! The Secretary of
the Band of Hard-up Matrons asked him for fifty pounds, and got five
hundred--generous Meddlechip! And at the meeting of the Society for the
Suppression of Vice among Married Men he gave two thousand pounds, and
made a speech on the occasion, which made all the married men present
tremble lest their sins should find them out-noble Meddlechip! He would
give thousands away in public charity, have it well advertised in the
newspapers, and then wonder, with humility, how the information got
there; and he would give a poor woman in charge for asking for a penny,
on the ground that she was a vagrant. Here, indeed, was a man for
Victoria to be proud of; put up a statue to him in the centre of the
city; let all the school children study a list of his noble actions as
lessons; let the public at large grovel before him, and lick the dust of
his benevolent shoes, for he is a professional philanthropist.

Mrs Meddlechip, large, florid, and loud-voiced, was equally as well
known as her husband, but in a different way. He posed as benevolence,
she was the type of all that's fashionable--that is, she knew everyone;
gave large parties, went out to balls, theatres, and lawn tennis, and
dressed in the very latest style, whether it suited her or not. She had
been born and brought up in the colonies, but when her husband went to
London as a representative colonial she went also, and stayed there
a whole year, after which she came out to her native land and ran
everything down in the most merciless manner. They did not do this in
England--oh! dear no! nothing so common--the people in Melbourne had
such dreadfully vulgar manners; but then, of course, they are not
English; there was no aristocracy; even the dogs and horses were
different; they had not the stamp of centuries of birth and breeding on
them. In fact, to hear Mrs Meddlechip talk one would think that England
was a perfect aristocratic paradise, and Victoria a vulgar--other place.
She totally ignored the marvellously rapid growth of the country, and
that the men and women in it were actually the men and women who had
built it up year by year, so that even now it was taking its place among
the nations of the earth. But Mrs Meddlechip was far too ladylike and
fashionable for troubling about such things--oh dear, no--she left
all these dry facts to Ebenezer, who could speak about them in his own
pompous, blatant style at public meetings.

This lady was one of those modern inventions known as a frisky matron,
and said and did all manner of dreadful things, which people winked
at because--she was Mrs Meddlechip, and eccentric. She had a young
man always dangling after her at theatres and dances--sometimes one,
sometimes another, but there was one who was a fixture. This was Barty
Jarper, who acted as her poodle dog, and fetched and carried for her in
the most amiable manner. When any new poodle dog came on the scene Barty
would meekly resign his position, and retire into the background until
such time as he was whistled back again to go through his antics.
Barty attended her everywhere, made up her programmes, wrote out her
invitations, danced with whosoever he was told, and was rewarded for all
these services by being given the crumbs from the rich man's table.
Mr Jarper had a meek little way with Mrs Meddlechip, as if he was
constantly apologising for having dared to have come into the world
without her permission, but to other people he was rude enough, and in
his own mean little soul looked upon himself quite as a man of fashion.
How he managed to go about as he did was a standing puzzle to his
friends, as he got only a small salary at the Hibernian Bank; yet he was
to be seen at balls, theatres, tennis parties; constantly driving about
in hansoms; in fact, lived as if he had an independent income. The
general opinion was that he was supplied with money by Mrs Meddlechip,
while others said he gambled; and, indeed, Barty was rather clever at
throwing sixes, and frequently at the Bachelors' Club won a sufficient
sum to give him a new suit of clothes or pay his club subscription for
the year. He was one of those bubbles which dance on the surface of
society, yet are sure to vanish some day, and if God tempered the wind
to any particular shorn lamb, that shorn lamb was Barty Jarper.

The Meddlechips were giving a ball, therefore the mansion at Toorak
was brilliantly illuminated and crowded with fashionable people. The
ball-room was at the side of the house, and from it French windows
opened on to a wide verandah, which was enclosed with drapery and hung
with many-coloured Chinese lanterns. Beyond this the smooth green lawns
stretched away to a thick fringe of trees, which grew beside the fence
and screened the Meddlechip residence from the curious gaze of vulgar
eyes.

Kitty came under the guardianship of Mrs Riller, a young matron with
dark hair, an imperious manner, and a young man always at her heels. Mrs
Villiers intended to have come, but at the last moment was seized with
one of her nervous fits, so decided to stop at home with Selina for
company. Kitty, therefore, accompanied Mrs Riller to the ball, but the
guardianship of that lady was more nominal than anything else, as she
went off with Mr Bellthorp after introducing Kitty to Mrs Meddlechip,
and flirted and danced with him the whole evening. Kitty, however,
did not in the least mind being left to her own devices, for being an
extremely pretty girl she soon had plenty of young men round her anxious
to be introduced. She filled her programme rapidly and kept two valses
for Vandeloup, as she knew he was going to be present, but he as yet had
not made his appearance.

He arrived about a quarter past ten o'clock, and was strolling leisurely
up to the house, when he saw Pierre, standing amid a number of idlers
at the gate. The dumb man stepped forward, and Vandeloup paused with a
smile on his handsome lips, though he was angry enough at the meeting.

'Money again, I suppose?' he said to Pierre, in a low voice, in French;
'don't trouble me now, but come to my rooms to-morrow.'

The dumb man nodded, and Vandeloup walked leisurely up the path. Then
Pierre followed him right up to the steps which led to the house, saw
him enter the brilliantly-lighted hall, and then hid himself in the
shrubs which grew on the edge of the lawn. There, in close hiding, he
could hear the sound of music and voices, and could see the door of
the fernery wide open, and caught glimpses of dainty dresses and bare
shoulders within.

Vandeloup, quite ignorant that his friend was watching the house, put on
his gloves leisurely, and walked in search of his hostess.

Mrs Meddlechip glanced approvingly at Vandeloup as he came up, for he
was extremely good-looking, and good-looking men were Mrs Meddlechip's
pet weakness. Barty was in attendance on his liege lady, and when he
saw how she admired Vandeloup, he foresaw he would be off duty for some
time. It would be Vandeloup promoted vice Jarper resigned, but Barty
very well knew that Gaston was not a man to conduct himself like a
poodle dog, so came to the conclusion he would be retained for use
and M. Vandeloup for ornament. Meanwhile, he left Mrs Meddlechip to
cultivate the acquaintance of the young Frenchman, and went off with a
red-haired girl to the supper-room. Red-haired girl, who was remarkably
ugly and self-complacent, had been a wallflower all the evening, but
thought none the less of herself on that account. She assured Barty she
was not hungry, but when she finished supper Mr Jarper was very glad,
for the supper's sake, she had no appetite.

'She's the hungriest girl I ever met in my life,' he said to Bellthorp
afterwards; 'ate up everything I gave her, and drank so much lemonade, I
thought she'd go up like a balloon.'

When Barty had satisfied the red-haired girl's appetite--no easy
matter--he left her to play wallflower and make spiteful remarks on
the girls who were dancing, and took out another damsel, who smiled
and smiled, and trod on his toes when he danced, till he wished her in
Jericho. He asked if she was hungry, but, unlike the other girl, she was
not; he said she must be tired, but oh, dear no, she was quite fresh; so
she danced the whole waltz through and bumped Barty against everyone in
the room; then said his step did not suit hers, which exasperated him so
much--for Barty flattered himself on his waltzing--that he left her
just as she was getting up a flirtation, and went to have a glass of
champagne to soothe his feelings. Released from Mrs Meddlechip, Gaston
went in search of Kitty, and found her flirting with Felix Rolleston,
who was amusing her with his gay chatter.

'This is a deuced good-looking chappie,' said Mr Rolleston, fixing his
eyeglass in his eye and looking critically at Gaston as he approached
them; 'M. Vandeloup, isn't it?'

Kitty said it was.

'Oh! yes,' went on Felix, brightly, 'saw him about town--don't know him
personally; awfully like a fellow I once knew called Fitzgerald--Brian
Fitzgerald--married now and got a family; funny thing, married Miss
Frettlby, who used to live in your house.'

'Oh! that hansom cab murder,' said Kitty, looking at him, 'I've heard
all about that.'

'Egad! I should think you had,' observed Mr Rolleston, with a grin, 'it
was a nine days' wonder; but here's your friend, introduce me, pray,' as
Vandeloup came up.

Kitty did so, and Felix improved the occasion.

'Knew you by sight,' he said, shaking hands with Gaston, 'but it's a
case of we never speak as we pass by, and all that sort of thing--come
and look me up,' hospitably, 'South Yarra.'

'Delighted,' said Gaston, smoothly, taking Kitty's programme and putting
his name down for the two vacant waltzes.

'Reciprocal, I assure you,' said the lively Felix. 'Oh, by Jove! excuse
me, Miss Marchurst--there's a polka--got to dance with a girl--you'll
see me in a minute--she's a maypole--I'm not, ha! ha! You'll say it's
the long and the short of it--ta-ta at present.'

He hopped off gaily, and they soon saw him steering the maypole round
the room, or rather, the maypole steered Felix, for her idea of the
dance was to let Felix skip gaily round her; then she lifted him up and
put him down a few feet further on, when he again skipped, and so the
performance went on, to the intense amusement of Kitty and Gaston.

'My faith!' said Vandeloup, satirically, dropping into a seat beside
Kitty, 'she is a maypole, and he's a merry peasant dancing round it. By
the way, Bebe, why isn't Madame here to-night?'

'She's not well,' replied Kitty, unfurling her fan; 'I don't know what's
come over her, she's so nervous.'

'Oh! indeed,' said Vandeloup, politely; 'Hum!--still afraid of her
husband turning up,' he said to himself, as Kitty was carried away for a
valse by Mr Bellthorp; 'how slow all this is?' he went on, yawning, and
rising from his seat; 'I shan't stay long, or that old woman will be
seizing me again. Poor Kestrike, surely his sin has been punished enough
in having such a wife,' and M. Vandeloup strolled away to speak to Mrs
Riller, who, being bereft of Bellthorp, was making signals to him with
her fan.

Barty Jarper had been hard at work all night on the poodle-dog system,
and had danced with girls who could not dance, and talked with girls
that could not talk, so, as a reward for his work, he promised himself a
dance with Kitty. At the beginning of the evening he had secured a dance
from her, and now, all his duties for the evening being over, he went to
get it. Bellthorp had long since returned to Mrs Riller and flirtation,
and Kitty had been dancing with a tall young man, with unsteady legs and
an eye-glass that would not stick in his eye. She did not particularly
care about Mr Jarper, with his effeminate little ways, but was quite
glad when he came to carry her off from the unsteady legs and the
eye-glass. The dance was the Lancers; but Kitty declared she would not
dance it as she felt weary, so made Mr Jarper take her to supper. Barty
was delighted, as he was hungry himself, so they secured a pleasant
little nook, and Barty foraged for provisions.

'You know all about this house,' said Kitty, when she saw how successful
the young man was in getting nice things.

'Oh, yes,' murmured Barty, quite delighted, 'I know most of the houses
in Melbourne--I know yours.'

'Mrs Villiers'?' asked Kitty.

Barty nodded.

'Used to go down there a lot when Mr Frettlby lived there,' he said,
sipping his wine. 'I know every room in it.'

'You'd be invaluable as a burglar,' said Kitty, a little contemptuously,
as she looked at his slim figure.

'I dare say,' replied Barty, who took the compliment in good faith.
'Some night I'll climb up to your room and give you a fright.'

'Shows how much you know,' retorted Miss Marchurst. 'My room is next to
Madame's on the ground floor.'

'I know,' said Barty, sagely, nodding his head. 'It used to be a
boudoir--nice little room. By the way, where is Mrs Villiers to-night?'

'She's not well,' replied Kitty, yawning behind her fan, for she was
weary of Barty and his small talk. 'She's very worried.'

'Over money matters, I suppose?'

Kitty laughed and shook her head.

'Hardly,' she answered.

'I dare say,' replied Barty, 'she's awfully rich. You know, I'm in the
bank where her account is, and I know all about her. Rich! oh, she is
rich! Lucky thing for that French fellow if he marries her.'

'Marries her?' echoed Kitty, her face growing pale. 'M. Vandeloup?'

'Yes,' replied Barty, pleased at having made a sensation. 'Her first
husband has vanished, you know, and all the fellows are laying bets
about Van marrying the grass widow.'

'What nonsense!' said Kitty, in an agitated voice. 'M. Vandeloup is her
friend--nothing more.'

Barty grinned.

'I've seen so much of that "friendship, and nothing more", business,' he
said, significantly, whereupon Kitty rose to her feet.

'I'm tired,' she said, coldly. 'Kindly take me to Mrs Riller.'

'I've put my foot into it,' thought Jarper, as he led her away. 'I
believe she's spoons on Van herself.'

Mrs Riller was not very pleased to see Kitty, as Mr Bellthorp was
telling her some amusing scandals about her dearest friends, and, of
course, had to stop when Kitty came up.

'Not dancing, dear?' she asked, with a sympathetic smile, glancing
angrily at Bellthorp, who seemed more struck with Kitty than he had any
right to be, considering he was her property.

'No,' replied Kitty, 'I'm a little tired.'

'Miss Marchurst,' observed Bellthorp, leaning towards her, 'I'm sure
I've seen you before.'

Kitty felt a chill running through her veins as she remembered where
their last meeting had been. The extremity of the danger gave her
courage.

'I dare say,' she replied, coldly turning her back on the young man,
'I'm not invisible.'

Mrs Killer looked with all her eyes, for she wanted to know all about
this pretty girl who dropped so unexpectedly into Melbourne society, so
she determined to question Bellthorp when she got him alone. To this end
she finessed.

'Oh! there's that lovely valse,' she said, as the band struck up 'One
summer's night in Munich'. 'If you are not engaged, Mr Bellthorp, we
must have a turn.'

'Delighted,' replied Bellthorp, languidly offering his arm, but thinking
meanwhile, 'confound these women, how they do work a man.'

'You, I suppose,' said Mrs Riller to Kitty, 'are going to play
wallflower.'

'Hardly,' observed a cool voice behind them; 'Miss Marchurst dances this
with me--you see, Mrs Riller,' as that lady turned and saw Vandeloup,
'she has not your capability at playing wallflower,' with a significant
glance at Bellthorp.

Mrs Riller understood the look, which seemed to pierce into the very
depths of her frivolous little soul, and flushed angrily as she moved
away with Mr Bellthorp and mentally determined to be even with Vandeloup
on the first occasion.

Gaston, quite conscious of the storm he had raised, smiled serenely, and
then offered his arm to Kitty, which she refused, as she was determined
to find out from his own lips the truth of Jarper's statement regarding
Madame Midas.

'I don't want to dance,' she said curtly, pointing to the seat beside
her as an invitation for him to sit down.

'Pardon me,' observed Vandeloup, blandly, 'I do; we can talk afterwards
if you like.'

Their eyes met, and then Kitty arose and took his arm, with a charming
pout. It was no good fighting against the quiet, masterful manner of
this man, so she allowed him to put his arm round her waist and swing
her slowly into the centre of the room. 'One summer's night in Munich'
was a favourite valse, and everyone who could dance, and a good many who
could not, were up on the floor. Every now and then, through the steady
beat of the music, came the light laugh of a woman or the deeper tones
of a man's voice; and the glare of the lights, the flashing jewels on
the bare necks and arms of women, the soft frou-frou of their dresses,
as their partners swung them steadily round, and the subtle perfume of
flowers gave an indescribable sensuous flavour to the whole scene. And
the valse--who does not know it? with its sad refrain, which comes in
every now and then throughout, even in the most brilliant passages.
The whole story of a man's faith and a woman's treachery is contained
therein.

'One summer's night in Munich,' sighed the heavy bass instruments,
sadly and reproachfully, 'I thought your heart was true!' Listen to the
melancholy notes of the prelude which recall the whole scene--do you not
remember? The stars are shining, the night wind is blowing, and we are
on the terrace looking down on the glittering lights of the city. Hark!
that joyous sparkling strain, full of riant laughter, recalls the sad
students who wandered past, and then from amid the airy ripple of
notes comes the sweet, mellow strain of the 'cello, which tells of love
eternal amid the summer roses; how the tender melody sweeps on full
of the perfume and mystic meanings of that night. Hark! is that the
nightingale in the trees, or only the silvery notes of a violin,
which comes stealing through the steady throb and swing of the heavier
stringed instruments? Ah! why does the rhythm stop? A few chords
breaking up the dream, the sound of a bugle calling you away, and
the valse goes into the farewell motif with its tender longing and
passionate anguish. Good-bye! you will be true? Your heart is mine,
good-bye, sweetheart! Stop! that discord of angry notes--she is false
to her soldier lover! The stars are pale, the nightingale is silent, the
rose leaves fall, and the sad refrain comes stealing through the room
again with its bitter reproach, 'One summer's night in Munich I knew
your heart was false.'

Kitty danced for a little time, but was too much agitated to enjoy the
valse, in spite of the admirable partner M. Vandeloup made. She was
determined to find out the truth, so stopped abruptly, and insisted on
Vandeloup taking her to the conservatory.

'What for?' he asked, as they threaded their way through the crowded
room. 'Is it important?'

'Very,' she replied, looking straight at him; 'it is essential to our
comedy.'

M. Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

'My faith!' he murmured, as they entered the fernery; 'this comedy is
becoming monotonous.'



CHAPTER X

IN THE FERNERY


The fernery was a huge glass building on one side of the ballroom,
filled with Australian and New Zealand ferns, and having a large
fountain in the centre sending up a sparkling jet of water, which fell
into the shallow stone basin filled with water lilies and their pure
white flowers. At the end was a mimic representation of a mountain
torrent, with real water tumbling down real rocks, and here and there
in the crannies and crevices grew delicate little ferns, while overhead
towered the great fronds of the tree ferns. The roof was a dense mass of
greenery, and wire baskets filled with sinuous creepers hung down, with
their contents straggling over. Electric lights in green globes were
skilfully hidden all round, and a faint aquamarine twilight permeated
the whole place, and made it look like a mermaid's grotto in the depths
of the sea. Here and there were delightful nooks, with well-cushioned
seats, many of which were occupied by pretty girls and their attendant
cavaliers. On one side of the fernery a wide door opened on to a low
terrace, from whence steps went down to the lawn, and beyond was the
dark fringe of trees wherein Pierre was concealed.

Kitty and Vandeloup found a very comfortable nook just opposite the
door, and they could see the white gleam of the terrace in the luminous
starlight. Every now and then a couple would pass, black silhouettes
against the clear sky, and around they could hear the murmur of voices
and the musical tinkling of the fountain, while the melancholy music
of the valse, with its haunting refrain, sounded through the pale green
twilight. Barty Jarper was talking near them, in his mild little way, to
a tall young lady in a bilious-looking green dress, and further off Mr
Bellthorp was laughing with Mrs Riller behind the friendly shelter of
her fan.

'Well,' said Vandeloup, amiably, as he sank into a seat beside Kitty,
'what is this great matter you wish to speak about?'

'Madame Midas,' retorted Kitty, looking straight at him.

'Such a delightful subject,' murmured Gaston, closing his eyes, as he
guessed what was coming; 'go on, I'm all attention.'

'You are going to marry her,' said Miss Marchurst, bending towards him
and closing her fan with a snap.

Vandeloup smiled faintly.

'You don't say so?' he murmured, opening his eyes and looking at her
lazily; 'who told you this news--for news it is to me, I assure you?'

'Then it's not true?' added Kitty, eagerly, with a kind of gasp.

'I'm sure I don't know,' he replied, indolently fingering his moustache;
'I haven't asked her yet.'

'You are not going to do so?' she said, rapidly, with a flush on her
face.

'Why not?' in surprise; 'do you object?'

'Object? my God!' she ejaculated, in a low fierce tone; 'have you
forgotten what we are to one another?'

'Friends, I understand,' he said, looking at his hands, admiringly.

'And something more,' she added, bitterly; 'lovers!'

'Don't talk so loud, my dear,' replied Vandeloup, coolly; 'it doesn't do
to let everyone know your private business.'

'It's private now,' she said, in a voice of passion, 'but it will soon
be public enough.'

'Indeed! which paper do you advertise in?'

'Listen to me, Gaston,' she said, taking no notice of his sneer; 'you
will never marry Madame Midas; sooner than that, I will reveal all and
kill myself.'

'You forget,' he said, gently; 'it is comedy, not tragedy, we play.'

'That is as I choose,' she retorted; 'see!' and with a sudden gesture
she put her hand into the bosom of her dress and took out the bottle of
poison with the red bands. 'I have it still.'

'So I perceive,' he answered, smiling. 'Do you always carry it about
with you, like a modern Lucrezia Borgia?'

'Yes,' she answered quietly; 'it never leaves me, you see,' with a
sneer. 'As you said yourself, it's always well to be prepared for
emergencies.'

'So it appears,' observed Vandeloup, with a yawn, sitting up. 'I
wouldn't use that poison if I were you; it is risky.'

'Oh, no, it's not,' answered Kitty; 'it is fatal in its results, and
leaves no trace behind.'

'There you are wrong,' replied Gaston, coolly; 'it does leave traces
behind, but makes it appear as if apoplexy was the cause of death. Give
me the bottle?' peremptorily.

'No!' she answered, defiantly, clenching it in her hand.

'I say yes,' he said, in an angry whisper; 'that poison is my secret,
and I'm not going to have you play fast and loose with it; give it up,'
and he placed his hand on her wrist.

'You hurt my wrist,' she said.

'I'll break your wrist, my darling,' he said, quietly, 'if you don't
give me that bottle.'

Kitty wrenched her hand away, and rose to her feet.

'Sooner than that, I'll throw it away,' she said, and before he could
stop her, she flung the bottle out on to the lawn, where it fell down
near the trees.

'Bah! I will find it,' he said, springing to his feet, but Kitty was too
quick for him.

'M. Vandeloup,' she said aloud, so that everyone could hear; 'kindly
take me back to the ball-room, will you, to finish our valse.'

Vandeloup would have refused, but she had his arm, and as everyone
was looking at him, he could not refuse without being guilty of marked
discourtesy. Kitty had beaten him with his own weapons, so, with a
half-admiring glance at her, he took her back to the ball-room, where
the waltz was just ending.

'At all events,' he said in her ear, as they went smoothly gliding round
the room, 'you won't be able to do any mischief with it now to yourself
or to anyone else.'

'Won't I?' she retorted quickly; 'I have some more at home.'

'The deuce!' he ejaculated.

'Yes,' she replied, triumphantly; 'the bottle I got that belonged to
you, I put half its contents into another. So you see I can still do
mischief, and,' in a fierce whisper, 'I will, if you don't give up this
idea of marrying Madame Midas.'

'I thought you knew me better than that,' he said, in a tone of
concentrated passion. 'I will not.'

Then I'll poison her,' she retorted.

'What, the woman who has been so kind to you?'

'Yes, I'd rather see her dead than married to a devil like you.'

'How amiable you are, Bebe,' he said, with a laugh, as the music
stopped.

'I am what you have made me,' she replied, bitterly, and they walked
into the drawing-room.

After this Vandeloup clearly saw that it was a case of diamond cut
diamond, for Kitty was becoming as clever with her tongue as he was.
After all, though she was his pupil, and was getting as hardened and
cynical as possible, he did not think it fair she should use his own
weapons against himself. He did not believe she would try and poison
Madame Midas, even though she was certain of not being detected, for
he thought she was too tender-hearted. But, alas! he had taught her
excellently well, and Kitty was rapidly arriving at the conclusion
he had long since come to, that number one was the greatest number.
Besides, her love for Vandeloup, though not so ardent as it had been,
was too intense for her to let any other woman get a hold of him.
Altogether, M. Vandeloup was in an extremely unpleasant position, and
one of his own making.

Having given Kitty over to the tender care of Mrs Rolleston, Vandeloup
hurried outside to look for the missing bottle. He had guessed the
position it fell in, and, striking a match, went to look over the smooth
close-shorn turf. But though he was a long time, and looked carefully,
the bottle was gone.

'The devil!' said Vandeloup, startled by this discovery. 'Who could have
picked it up?'

He went back into the conservatory, and, sitting down in his old place,
commenced to review the position.

It was most annoying about the poison, there was no doubt of that.
He only hoped that whoever picked it up would know nothing about its
dangerous qualities. After all, he could be certain about that, as no
one but himself knew what the poison was and how it could be used. The
person who picked up the bottle would probably throw it away again as
useless; and then, again, perhaps when Kitty threw the bottle away the
stopper came out, and the contents would be lost. And then Kitty still
had more left, but--bah!--she would not use it on Madame Midas. That was
the vague threat of a jealous woman to frighten him. The real danger he
was in lay in the fact that she might tell Madame Midas the relations
between them, and then there would be no chance of his marrying at all.
If he could only stop Kitty's mouth in some way--persuasion was thrown
away on her. If he could with safety get rid of her he would. Ah! that
was an idea. He had some of this poison--if he could only manage to give
it to her, and thus remove her from his path. There would be no risk of
discovery, as the poison left no traces behind, and if it came to the
worst, it would appear she had committed suicide, for poison similar
to what she had used would be found in her possession. It was a pity to
kill her, so young and pretty, and yet his safety demanded it; for if
she told Madame Midas all, it might lead to further inquiries, and M.
Vandeloup well knew his past life would not bear looking into. Another
thing, she had threatened him about some secret she held--he did not
know what it was, and yet almost guessed; if that was the secret she
must be got rid of, for it would imperil not only his liberty, but
his life. Well, if he had to get rid of her, the sooner he did so the
better, for even on the next day she might tell all--he would have to
give her the poison that night--but how? that was the difficulty.
He could not do it at this ball, as it would be too apparent if she
died--no--it would have to be administered secretly when she went home.
But then she would go to Madame Midas' room to see how she was, and
then would retire to her own room. He knew where that was--just off
Mrs Villiers' room; there were French windows in both rooms--two in Mrs
Villiers', and one in Kitty's. That was the plan--they would be left
open as the night was hot. Suppose he went down to St Kilda, and got
into the garden, he knew every inch of the way; then he could slip into
the open window, and if it was not open, he could use a diamond ring
to cut the glass. He had a diamond ring he never wore, so if Kitty was
discovered to be poisoned, and the glass cut, they would never suspect
him, as he did not wear rings at all, and the evidence of the cut window
would show a diamond must have been used. Well, suppose he got inside,
Kitty would be asleep, and he could put the poison into the water
carafe, or he could put it in a glass of water and leave it standing;
the risk would be, would she drink it or not--he would have to run that
risk; if he failed this time, he would not the next. But, then, suppose
she awoke and screamed--pshaw! when she saw it was he Kitty would not
dare to make a scene, and he could easily make some excuse for his
presence there. It was a wild scheme, but then he was in such a
dangerous position that he had to try everything.

When M. Vandeloup had come to this conclusion he arose, and, going to
the supper room, drank a glass of brandy; for even he, cool as he was,
felt a little nervous over the crime he was about to commit. He thought
he would give Kitty one last chance, so when she was already cloaked,
waiting with Mrs Killer for the carriage, he drew her aside.

'You did not mean what you said tonight,' he whispered, looking
searchingly at her.

'Yes, I did,' she replied, defiantly; 'if you push me to extremities,
you must take the consequences.'

'It will be the worse for you,' he said, threateningly, as the carriage
drove up.

'I'm not afraid of you,' she retorted, shrugging her shoulders, a trick
she had learned from him; 'you have ruined my life, but I'm not going to
let you ruin Madame's. I'd sooner see her dead than in your arms.'

'Remember, I have warned you,' he said, gravely, handing her to the
carriage. 'Good night!'

'Good night!' she answered, mockingly; 'and to-morrow,' in a low voice,
'you will be astonished.'

'And to-morrow,' he said to himself, as the carriage drove off, 'you
will be dead.'



CHAPTER XI

THE VISION OF MISS KITTY MARCHURST


Everyone knows the story of Damocles, and how uncomfortable he felt with
the sword suspended by a hair over his head. No one could enjoy their
dinner under such circumstances, and it is much to be thankful for that
hosts of the present day do not indulge in these practical jokes. But
though history does not repeat itself exactly regarding the suspended
sword, yet there are cases when a sense of impending misfortune has the
same effect on the spirits. This was the case of Madame Midas. She
was not by any means of a nervous temperature, yet ever since the
disappearance of her husband she was a prey to a secret dread, which,
reacting on her nerves, rendered her miserable. Had Mr Villiers only
appeared, she would have known how to deal with him, and done so
promptly, but it was his absence that made her afraid. Was he dead?
If so, why was his body not found; if he was not dead, why did he not
reappear on the scene. Allowing, for the sake of argument, that he had
stolen the nugget and left the colony in order to enjoy the fruits of
his villainy--well, the nugget weighed about three hundred ounces--and
that if he disposed of it, as he must have done, it would give him a sum
of money a little over one thousand pounds. True, his possession of such
a large mass of gold would awake suspicions in the mind of anyone he
went to; but then, there were people who were always ready to do shady
things, provided they were well paid. So whomsoever he went to would
levy blackmail on him on threat of informing the police and having him
arrested. Therefore, the most feasible thing would be that he had got
about half of the value of the nugget, which would be about six hundred
pounds. Say that he did so, a whole year had elapsed, and Madame Midas
knew her husband well enough to know that six hundred pounds would soon
slip through his fingers, so at the present time he must once more be
penniless. If he was, why did he not come back to her and demand more
money now she was rich? Even had he gone to a distant place, he would
always have kept enough money to pay his way back to Victoria, so that
he could wring money out of her. It was this unpleasant feeling of being
watched that haunted her and made her uneasy. The constant strain began
to tell on her; she became ill and haggard-looking, and her eyes were
always glancing around in the anxious manner common to hunted animals.
She felt as though she were advancing on a masked battery, and at any
moment a shot might strike her from the most unexpected quarter. She
tried to laugh off the feeling and blamed herself severely for the
morbid state of mind into which she was falling; but it was no use, for
by day and night the sense of impending misfortune hung over her like
the sword of Damocles, ready to fall at any moment. If her husband would
only appear, she would settle an income on him, on condition he ceased
to trouble her, but at present she was fighting in the dark with an
unknown enemy. She became afraid of being left alone, and even when
seated quietly with Selina, would suddenly start and look apprehensively
towards the door, as if she heard his footstep. Imagination, when
uncontrolled, can keep the mind on a mental rack, to which that of the
Inquisition was a bed of roses.

Selina was grieved at this state of things, and tried to argue and
comfort her mistress with the most amiable proverbs, but she was quite
unable to administer to a mind diseased, and Mrs Villiers' life became a
perfect hell upon earth.

'Are my troubles never going to end?' she said to Selina on the night of
the Meddlechip ball, as she paced restlessly up and down her room; 'this
man has embittered the whole of my life, and now he is stabbing me in
the dark.'

'Let the dead past bury its dead,' quoted Selina, who was arranging the
room for the night.

'Pshaw!' retorted Madame, impatiently, walking to the French window at
the end of the room and opening it; 'how do you know he is dead? Come
here, Selina,' she went on, beckoning to the old woman, and pointing
outside to the garden bathed in moonlight; 'I have always a dread
lest he may be watching the house. Even now he may be concealed
yonder'--pointing down the garden.

Selina looked out, but could see nothing. There was a smooth lawn, burnt
and yellow with the heat, which stretched for about fifty feet, and
ended in a low quickset hedge at the foot of a red brick wall which ran
down that side of the property. The top of this wall was set with broken
bottles, and beyond was the street, where they could hear people passing
along. The moonlight rendered all this as light as day, and, as Selina
pointed out to her mistress, there was no place where a man could
conceal himself. But this did not satisfy Madame; she left the window
half open, so that the cool night wind could blow in, and drew together
the red velvet curtains which hung there.

'You've left the window open,' remarked Selina, looking at her mistress,
'and if you are nervous it will not make you feel safe.'

Madame Midas glanced at the window.

'It's so hot,' she said, plaintively, 'I will get no sleep. Can't you
manage to fix it up, so that I can leave it open?'

'I'll try,' answered Selina, and she undressed her mistress and put her
to bed, then proceeded to fix up a kind of burglar trap. The bed was a
four-poster, with heavy crimson curtains, and the top was pushed against
the wall, near the window. The curtains of the window and those of
the bed prevented any draught blowing in; and directly in front of the
window, Selina set a small wood table, so that anyone who tried to enter
would throw it over, and thus put the sleeper on the alert. On this she
put a night-light, a book, in case Madame should wake up and want to
read--a thing she very often did--and a glass of homemade lemonade, for
a night drink. Then she locked the other window and drew the curtains,
and, after going into Kitty's room, which opened off the larger one, and
fixing up the one window there in the same way, she prepared to retire,
but Madame stopped her.

'You must stay all night with me, Selina,' she said, irritably. 'I can't
be left alone.'

'But, Miss Kitty,' objected Selina, 'she'll expect to be waited for
coming home from the ball.'

'Well, she comes in here to go to her own room,' said Madame,
impatiently; 'you can leave the door unlocked.'

'Well,' observed Miss Sprotts, grimly, beginning to undress herself,
'for a nervous woman, you leave a great many windows and doors open.'

'I'm not afraid as long as you are with me,' said Madame, yawning; 'it's
by myself I get nervous.'

Miss Sprotts sniffed, and observed that 'Prevention is better than
cure,' then went to bed, and both she and Madame were soon fast asleep.
Selina slept on the outside of the bed, and Madame, having a sense of
security from being with someone, slumbered calmly; so the night wore
drowsily on, and nothing could be heard but the steady ticking of the
clock and the heavy breathing of the two women.

A sleepy servant admitted Kitty when she came home from the ball, and
had said goodbye to Mrs Killer and Bellthorp. Then Mrs Riller, whose
husband had gone home three hours before, drove away with Bellthorp, and
Kitty went into Madame's room, while the sleepy servant, thankful that
his vigil for the night was over, went to bed. Kitty found Madame's door
ajar, and went in softly, fearful lest she might wake her. She did not
know that Selina was in the room, and as she heard the steady breathing
of the sleepers, she concluded that Madame was asleep, and resolved to
go quietly into her own room without disturbing the sleeper. So eerie
the room looked with the faint night-light burning on the table beside
the bed, and all the shadows, not marked and distinct as in a strong
glare, were faintly confused. Just near the door was a long
chevral glass, and Kitty caught sight of herself in it, wan and
spectral-looking, in her white dress, and, as she let the heavy blue
cloak fall from her shoulders, a perfect shower of apple blossoms were
shaken on to the floor. Her hair had come undone from its sleek, smooth
plaits, and now hung like a veil of gold on her shoulders. She looked
closely at herself in the glass, and her face looked worn and haggard in
the dim light. A pungent acrid odour permeated the room, and the heavy
velvet curtains moved with subdued rustlings as the wind stole in
through the window. On a table near her was a portrait of Vandeloup,
which he had given Madame two days before, and though she could not
see the face she knew it was his. Stretching out her hand she took the
photograph from its stand, and sank into a low chair which stood at
the end of the room some distance from the bed. So noiseless were her
movements that the two sleepers never awoke, and the girl sat in
the chair with the portrait in her hand dreaming of the man whom it
represented. She knew his handsome face was smiling up at her out of the
glimmering gloom, and clenched her hands in anger as she thought how he
had treated her. She let the portrait fall on her lap, and leaning back
in the chair, with all her golden hair showering down loosely over her
shoulders, gave herself up to reflection.

He was going to marry Madame Midas--the man who had ruined her life; he
would hold another woman in his arms and tell her all the false tales he
had told her. He would look into her eyes with his own, and she would be
unable to see the treachery and guile hidden in their depths. She could
not stand it. False friend, false lover, he had been, but to see him
married to another--no! it was too much. And yet what could she do? A
woman in love believes no ill of the man she adores, and if she was to
tell Madame Midas all she would not be believed. Ah! it was useless
to fight against fate, it was too strong for her, so she would have to
suffer in silence, and see them happy. That story of Hans Andersen's,
which she had read, about the little mermaid who danced, and felt that
swords were wounding her feet while the prince smiled on his bride--yes,
that was her case. She would have to stand by in silence and see him
caressing another woman, while every caress would stab her like a sword.
Was there no way of stopping it? Ah! what is that? The poison--no! no!
anything but that. Madame had been kind to her, and she could not repay
her trust with treachery. No, she was not weak enough for that. And yet
suppose Madame died? no one could tell she had been poisoned, and then
she could marry Vandeloup. Madame was sleeping in yonder bed, and on the
table there was a glass with some liquid in it. She would only have to
go to her room, fetch the poison, and put it in there--then retire to
bed. Madame would surely drink during the night, and then--yes, there
was only one way--the poison!

How still the house was: not a sound but the ticking of the clock in the
hall and the rushing scamper of a rat or mouse. The dawn reddens faintly
in the east and the chill morning breeze comes up from the south, salt
with the odours of the ocean. Ah! what is that? a scream--a woman's
voice--then another, and the bell rings furiously. The frightened
servants collect from all parts of the house, in all shapes of dress and
undress. The bell sounds from the bedroom of Mrs Villiers, and having
ascertained this they all rush in. What a sight meets their eyes. Kitty
Marchurst, still in her ball dress, clinging convulsively to the chair;
Madame Midas, pale but calm, ringing the bell; and on the bed, with one
arm hanging over, lies Selina Sprotts--dead! The table near the bed
was overturned on the floor, and the glass and the night-lamp both lie
smashed to pieces on the carpet.

'Send for a doctor at once,' cried Madame, letting go the bell-rope and
crossing to the window; 'Selina has had a fit of some sort.'

Startled servant goes out to stables and wakes up the grooms, one
of whom is soon on horseback riding for dear life to Dr Chinston.
Clatter--clatter along in the keen morning air; a few workmen on their
way to work gaze in surprise at this furious rider. Luckily, the doctor
lives in St Kilda, and being awoke out of his sleep, dresses himself
quickly, and taking the groom's horse, rides back to Mrs Villiers'
house. He dismounts, enters the house, then the bedroom. Kitty, pale and
wan, is seated in the chair; the window curtains are drawn, and the cold
light of day pours into the room, while Madame Midas is kneeling beside
the corpse, with all the servants around her. Dr Chinston lifts the arm;
it falls limply down. The face is ghastly white, the eyes staring; there
is a streak of foam on the tightly clenched mouth. The doctor puts his
hand on the heart--not a throb; he closes the staring eyes reverently,
and turns to the kneeling woman and the frightened servants.

'She is dead,' he says, briefly, and orders them to leave the room.

'When did this occur, Mrs Villiers?' he asked, when the room had been
cleared and only himself, Madame, and Kitty remained.

'I can't tell you,' replied Madame, weeping; 'she was all right last
night when we went to bed, and she stayed all night with me because I
was nervous. I slept soundly, when I was awakened by a cry and saw Kitty
standing beside the bed and Selina in convulsions; then she became quite
still and lay like that till you came. What is the cause?'

'Apoplexy,' replied the doctor, doubtfully; 'at least, judging from the
symptoms; but perhaps Miss Marchurst can tell us when the attack came
on?'

He turned to Kitty, who was shivering in the chair and looked so pale
that Madame Midas went over to her to see what was the matter. The
girl, however, shrank away with a cry as the elder woman approached, and
rising to her feet moved unsteadily towards the doctor.

'You say she,' pointing to the body, 'died of apoplexy?'

'Yes,' he answered, curtly, 'all the symptoms of apoplexy are there.'

'You are wrong!' gasped Kitty, laying her hand on his arm, 'it is
poison!'

'Poison!' echoed Madame and the Doctor in surprise.

'Listen,' said Kitty, quickly, pulling herself together by a great
effort. 'I came home from the ball between two and three, I entered
the room to go to my own,' pointing to the other door; 'I did not know
Selina was with Madame.'

'No,' said Madame, quietly, 'that is true, I only asked her to stop at
the last moment.'

'I was going quietly to bed,' resumed Kitty, hurriedly, 'in order not
to waken Madame, when I saw the portrait of M. Vandeloup on the table; I
took it up to look at it.'

'How could you see without a light?' asked Dr Chinston, sharply, looking
at her.

'There was a night light burning,' replied Kitty, pointing to the
fragments on the floor; 'and I could only guess it was M. Vandeloup's
portrait; but at all events,' she said, quickly, 'I sat down in the
chair over there and fell asleep.'

'You see, doctor, she had been to a ball and was tired,' interposed
Madame Midas; 'but go on, Kitty, I want to know why you say Selina was
poisoned.'

'I don't know how long I was asleep,' said Kitty, wetting her dry lips
with her tongue, 'but I was awoke by a noise at the window there,'
pointing towards the window, upon which both her listeners turned
towards it, 'and looking, I saw a hand coming out from behind the
curtain with a bottle in it; it held the bottle over the glass on the
table, and after pouring the contents in, then withdrew.'

'And why did you not cry out for assistance?' asked the doctor, quickly.

'I couldn't,' she replied, 'I was so afraid that I fainted. I recovered
my senses, Selina had drank the poison, and when I got up on my feet and
went to the bed she was in convulsions; I woke Madame, and that's all.'

'A strange story,' said Chinston, musingly, 'where is the glass?'

'It's broken, doctor,' replied Madame Midas; 'in getting out of bed I
knocked the table down, and both the night lamp and glass smashed.'

'No one could have been concealed behind the curtain of the window?'
said the doctor to Madame Midas.

'No,' she replied, 'but the window was open all night; so if it is as
Kitty says, the man who gave the poison must have put his hand through
the open window.'

Dr Chinston went to the window and looked out; there were no marks of
feet on the flower bed, where it was so soft that anyone standing on it
would have left a footmark behind.

'Strange,' said the doctor, 'it's a peculiar story,' looking at Kitty
keenly.

'But a true one,' she replied boldly, the colour coming back to her
face; 'I say she was poisoned.'

'By whom?' asked Madame Midas, the memory of her husband coming back to
her.

'I can't tell you,' answered Kitty, 'I only saw the hand.'

'At all events,' said Chinston, slowly, 'the poisoner did not know that
your nurse was with you, so the poison was meant for Mrs Villiers.'

Tor me?' she echoed, ghastly pale; 'I knew it,--my husband is alive, and
this is his work.'



CHAPTER XII

A STARTLING DISCOVERY


Ill news travels fast, and before noon the death of Selina Sprotts was
known all over Melbourne. The ubiquitous reporter, of course, appeared
on the scene, and the evening papers gave its own version of the affair,
and a hint at foul play. There was no grounds for this statement, as Dr
Chinston told Kitty and Madame Midas to say nothing about the poison,
and it was generally understood that the deceased had died from
apoplexy. A rumour, however, which originated none knew how, crept about
among everyone that poison was the cause of death, and this, being added
to by some and embellished in all its little details by others, there
was soon a complete story made up about the affair. At the Bachelor's
Club it was being warmly spoken about when Vandeloup came in about
eight o'clock in the evening; and when he appeared he was immediately
overwhelmed with inquiries. He looked cool and calm as usual, and stood
smiling quietly on the excited group before him.

'You know Mrs Villiers,' said Bellthorp, in an assertive tone, 'so you
must know all about the affair.' 'I don't see that,' returned Gaston,
pulling at his moustache, 'knowing anyone does not include a knowledge
of all that goes on in the house. I assure you, beyond what there is in
the papers, I am as ignorant as you are.'

'They say this woman--Sprotts or Potts, or something--died from
poison,' said Barty Jarper, who had been all round the place collecting
information.

'Apoplexy, the doctor says,' said Bellthorp, lighting a cigarette;
'she was in the same room with Mrs Villiers and was found dead in the
morning.'

'Miss Marchurst was also in the room,' put in Barty, eagerly.

'Oh, indeed!' said Vandeloup, smoothly, turning to him; 'do you think
she had anything to do with it?'

'Of course not,' said Rolleston, who had just entered, 'she had no
reason to kill the woman.'

Vandeloup smiled.

'So logical you are,' he murmured, 'you want a reason for everything.'

'Naturally,' retorted Felix, fixing in his eyeglass, 'there is no effect
without a cause.'

'It couldn't have been Miss Marchurst,' said Bellthorp, 'they say that
the poison was poured out of a bottle held by a hand which came through
the window--it's quite true,' defiantly looking at the disbelieving
faces round him; 'one of Mrs Villiers' servants heard it in the house
and told Mrs Killer's maid.'

'From whence,' said Vandeloup, politely, 'it was transmitted to
you--precisely.'

Bellthorp reddened slightly, and turned away as he saw the other
smiling, for his relations with Mrs Killer were well known.

'That hand business is all bosh,' observed Felix Rolleston,
authoritatively; 'it's in a play called "The Hidden Hand".'

'Perhaps the person who poisoned Miss Sprotts, got the idea from it?'
suggested Jarper.

'Pshaw, my dear fellow,' said Vandeloup, languidly; 'people don't go to
melodrama for ideas. Everyone has got their own version of this story;
the best thing to do is to await the result of the inquest.'

'Is there to be an inquest?' cried all.

'So I've heard,' replied the Frenchman, coolly; 'sounds as if there was
something wrong, doesn't it?'

'It's a curious poisoning case,' observed Bellthorp.

'Ah, but it isn't proved that there is any poisoning about it,' said
Vandeloup, looking keenly at him; 'you jump to conclusions.'

'There is no smoke without fire,' replied Rolleston, sagely. 'I expect
we'll all be rather astonished when the inquest is held,' and so the
discussion closed.

The inquest was appointed to take place next day, and Calton had been
asked by Madame Midas to be present on her behalf. Kilsip, a detective
officer, was also present, and, curled up like a cat in the corner, was
listening to every word of the evidence.

The first witness called was Madame Midas, who deposed that the
deceased, Selina Jane Sprotts, was her servant. She had gone to bed in
excellent health, and next morning she had found her dead.

The Coroner asked a few questions relative to the case.

Q. Miss Marchurst awoke you, I believe?

A. Yes.

Q. And her room is off yours?

A. Yes.

Q. Had she to go through your room to reach her own?

A. She had. There was no other way of getting there.

Q. One of the windows of your room was open?

A. It was--all night.

Miss Kitty Marchurst was then called, and being sworn, gave her story
of the hand coming through the window. This caused a great sensation
in Court, and Calton looked puzzled, while Kilsip, scenting a mystery,
rubbed his lean hands together softly.

Q. You live with Mrs Villiers, I believe, Miss Marchurst?

A. I do.

Q. And you knew the deceased intimately?

A. I had known her all my life.

Q. Had she anyone who would wish to injure her?

A. Not that I knew of. She was a favourite with everyone.

Q. What time did you come home from the ball you were at?

A. About half-past two, I think. I went straight to Mrs Villiers' room.

Q. With the intention of going through it to reach your own?

A. Yes.

Q. You say you fell asleep looking at a portrait. How long did you
sleep?

A. I don't know. I was awakened by a noise at the window, and saw the
hand appear.

Q. Was it a man's hand or a woman's?

A. I don't know. It was too indistinct for me to see clearly; and I was
so afraid, I fainted.

Q. You saw it pour something from a bottle into the glass on the table?

A. Yes; but I did not see it withdraw. I fainted right off.

Q. When you recovered your senses, the deceased had drank the contents
of the glass?

A. Yes. She must have felt thirsty and drank it, not knowing it was
poisoned. Q. How do you know it was poisoned?

A. I only suppose so. I don't think anyone would come to a window and
pour anything into a glass without some evil purpose.

The Coroner then asked why the glass with what remained of the contents
had not been put in evidence, but was informed that the glass was
broken.

When Kitty had ended her evidence and was stepping down, she caught
the eye of Vandeloup, who was looking at her keenly. She met his gaze
defiantly, and he smiled meaningly at her. At this moment, however,
Kilsip bent forward and whispered something to the Coroner, whereupon
Kitty was recalled.

Q. You were an actress, Miss Marchurst?

A. Yes. I was on tour with Mr Theodore Wopples for some time.

Q. Do you know a drama called 'The Hidden Hand'?

A. Yes--I have played in it once or twice.

Q. Is there not a strong resemblance between your story of this crime
and the drama?

A. Yes, it is very much the same.

Kilsip then gave his evidence, and deposed that he had examined the
ground between the window, where the hand was alleged to have appeared,
and the garden wall. There were no footmarks on the flower-bed under the
window, which was the only place where footmarks would show, as the lawn
itself was hard and dry. He also examined the wall, but could find no
evidence that anyone had climbed over it, as it was defended by broken
bottles, and the bushes at its foot were not crushed or disturbed in any
way.

Dr Chinston was then called, and deposed that he had made a post-mortem
examination of the body of the deceased. The body was that of a woman of
apparently fifty or fifty-five years of age, and of medium height; the
body was well nourished. There were no ulcers or other signs of disease,
and no marks of violence on the body. The brain was congested and soft,
and there was an abnormal amount of fluid in the spaces known as the
ventricles of the brain; the lungs were gorged with dark fluid blood;
the heart appeared healthy, its left side was contracted and empty, but
the right was dilated and filled with dark fluid blood; the stomach was
somewhat congested, and contained a little partially digested food; the
intestines here and there were congested, and throughout the body the
blood was dark and fluid.

Q. What then, in your opinion, was the cause of death?

A. In my opinion death resulted from serous effusion on the brain,
commonly known as serous apoplexy.

Q. Then you found no appearances in the stomach, or elsewhere, which
would lead you to believe poison had been taken?

A. No, none.

Q. From the post-mortem examination could you say the death of the
deceased was not due to some narcotic poison?

A. No: the post-mortem appearances of the body are quite consistent with
those of poisoning by certain poisons, but there is no reason to suppose
that any poison has been administered in this case, as I, of course,
go by what I see; and the presence of poisons, especially vegetable
poisons, can only be detected by chemical analysis.

Q. Did you analyse the contents of the stomach chemically?

A. No; it was not my duty to do so; I handed over the stomach to the
police, seeing that there is suspicion of poison, and thence it will go
to the Government analyst.

Q. It is stated that the deceased had convulsions before she died--is
this not a symptom of narcotic poisoning?

A. In some cases, yes, but not commonly; aconite, for instance, always
produces convulsions in animals, seldom in man.

Q. How do you account for the congested condition of the lungs?

A. I believe the serous effusion caused death by suspended respiration.

Q. Was there any odour perceptible?

A. No, none whatsoever.

The inquest was then adjourned till next day, and there was great
excitement over the affair. If Kitty Marchurst's statement was true, the
deceased must have died from the administration of poison; but, on the
other hand, Dr Chinston asserted positively that there was no trace of
poison, and that the deceased had clearly died from apoplexy. Public
opinion was very much divided, some asserting that Kitty's story was
true, while others said she had got the idea from 'The Hidden Hand', and
only told it in order to make herself notorious. There were plenty
of letters written to the papers on the subject, each offering a new
solution of the difficulty, but the fact remained the same, that Kitty
said the deceased had been poisoned; the doctor that she had died of
apoplexy. Calton was considerably puzzled over the matter. Of course,
there was no doubt that the man who committed the murder had intended to
poison Madame Midas, but the fact that Selina stayed all night with her,
had resulted in the wrong person being killed. Madame Midas told Calton
the whole story of her life, and asserted positively that if the poison
was meant for her, Villiers must have administered it. This was all very
well, but the question then arose, was Villiers alive? The police were
once more set to work, and once more their search resulted in nothing.
Altogether the whole affair was wrapped in mystery, as it could not even
be told if a murder had been committed, or if the deceased had died from
natural causes. The only chance of finding out the truth would be to
have the stomach analysed, and the cause of death ascertained; once that
was done, and the matter could be gone on with, or dropped, according
to the report of the analyst. If he said it was apoplexy, Kitty's story
would necessarily have to be discredited as an invention; but if, on
the other hand, the traces of poison were found, search would have to be
made for the murderer. Matters were at a deadlock, and everyone waited
impatiently for the report of the analyst. Suddenly, however, a new
interest was given to the case by the assertion that a Ballarat doctor,
called Gollipeck, who was a noted toxicologist, had come down to
Melbourne to assist at the analysis of the stomach, and knew something
which would throw light on the mysterious death.

Vandeloup saw the paragraph which gave this information, and it
disturbed him very much.

'Curse that book of Prevol's,' he said to himself, as he threw down the
paper: 'it will put them on the right track, and then--well,' observed
M. Vandeloup, sententiously, 'they say danger sharpens a man's wits;
it's lucky for me if it does.'



CHAPTER XIII

DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND


M. Vandeloup's rooms in Clarendon Street, East Melbourne, were very
luxuriously and artistically furnished, in perfect accordance with the
taste of their owner, but as the satiated despot is depicted by the
moralists as miserable amid all his splendour, so M. Gaston Vandeloup,
though not exactly miserable, was very ill at ease. The inquest had been
adjourned until the Government analyst, assisted by Dr Gollipeck, had
examined the stomach, and according to a paragraph in the evening paper,
some strange statements, implicating various people, would be made next
day. It was this that made Vandeloup so uneasy, for he knew that Dr
Gollipeck would trace a resemblance between the death of Selina Sprotts
in Melbourne and Adele Blondet in Paris, and then the question would
arise how the poison used in the one case came to be used in the other.
If that question arose it would be all over with him, for he would not
dare to face any examination, and as discretion is the better part
of valour, M. Vandeloup decided to leave the country. With his usual
foresight he had guessed that Dr Gollipeck would be mixed up in the
affair, so had drawn his money out of all securities in which it was
invested, sent most of it to America to a New York bank, reserving only
a certain sum for travelling purposes. He was going to leave Melbourne
next morning by the express train for Sydney, and there would catch the
steamer to San Francisco via New Zealand and Honolulu. Once in America
and he would be quite safe, and as he now had plenty of money he could
enjoy himself there. He had given up the idea of marrying Madame Midas,
as he dare not run the risk of remaining in Australia, but then there
were plenty of heiresses in the States he could marry if he chose, so to
give her up was a small matter. Another thing, he would be rid of Pierre
Lemaire, for once let him put the ocean between him and the dumb man he
would take care they never met again. Altogether, M. Vandeloup had taken
all precautions to secure his own safety with his usual promptitude and
coolness, but notwithstanding that another twelve hours would see him on
his way to Sydney en route for the States, he felt slightly uneasy, for
as he often said, 'There are always possibilities.'

It was about eight o'clock at night, and Gaston was busy in his rooms
packing up to go away next morning. He had disposed of his apartments to
Bellthorp, as that young gentleman had lately come in for some money and
was dissatisfied with the paternal roof, where he was kept too strictly
tied up.

Vandeloup, seated in his shirt sleeves in the midst of a chaos of
articles of clothing, portmanteaux, and boxes, was, with the experience
of an accomplished traveller, rapidly putting these all away in the most
expeditious and neatest manner. He wanted to get finished before ten
o'clock, so that he could go down to his club and show himself, in order
to obviate any suspicion as to his going away. He did not intend to send
out any P.P.C. cards, as he was a modest young man and wanted to slip
unostentatiously out of the country; besides, there was nothing like
precaution, as the least intimation of his approaching departure would
certainly put Dr Gollipeck on the alert and cause trouble. The gas was
lighted, there was a bright glare through all the room, and everything
was in confusion, with M. Vandeloup seated in the centre, like Marius
amid the ruins of Carthage. While thus engaged there came a ring at the
outer door, and shortly afterwards Gaston's landlady entered his room
with a card.

'A gentleman wants to see you, sir,' she said, holding out the card.

'I'm not at home,' replied Vandeloup, coolly, removing the cigarette he
was smoking from his mouth; 'I can't see anyone tonight.'

'He says you'd like to see him, sir,' answered the woman, standing at
the door.

'The deuce he does,' muttered Vandeloup, uneasily; 'I wonder what this
pertinacious gentleman's name is? and he glanced at the card, whereon
was written 'Dr Gollipeck'.

Vandeloup felt a chill running through him as he rose to his feet. The
battle was about to begin, and he knew he would need all his wit and
skill to get himself out safely. Dr Gollipeck had thrown down the
gauntlet, and he would have to pick it up. Well, it was best to know
the worst at once, so he told the landlady he would see Gollipeck
downstairs. He did not want him to come up there, as he would see all
the evidences of his intention to leave the country.

'I'll see him downstairs,' he said, sharply, to the landlady; 'ask the
gentleman to wait.'

The landlady, however, was pushed roughly to one side, and Dr Gollipeck,
rusty and dingy-looking as ever, entered the room.

'No need, my dear friend,' he said in his grating voice, blinking at the
young man through his spectacles, 'we can talk here.'

Vandeloup signed to the landlady to leave the room, which she did,
closing the door after her, and then, pulling himself together with a
great effort, he advanced smilingly on the doctor.

'Ah, my dear Monsieur,' he said, in his musical voice, holding out both
hands, 'how pleased I am to see you.'

Dr Gollipeck gurgled pleasantly in his throat at this and laughed, that
is, something apparently went wrong in his inside and a rasping noise
came out of his mouth.

'You clever young man,' he said, affectionately, to Gaston, as he
unwound a long crimson woollen scarf from his throat, and thereby caused
a button to fly off his waistcoat with the exertion. Dr Gollipeck,
however, being used to these little eccentricities of his toilet, pinned
the waistcoat together, and then, sitting down, spread his red bandanna
handkerchief over his knees, and stared steadily at Vandeloup, who had
put on a loose velvet smoking coat, and, with a cigarette in his mouth,
was leaning against the mantelpiece. It was raining outside, and the
pleasant patter of the raindrops was quite audible in the stillness of
the room, while every now and then a gust of wind would make the windows
rattle, and shake the heavy green curtains. The two men eyed one another
keenly, for they both knew they had an unpleasant quarter of an hour
before them, and were like two clever fencers--both watching their
opportunity to begin the combat. Gollipeck, with his greasy coat, all
rucked up behind his neck, and his frayed shirt cuffs coming down on his
ungainly hands, sat sternly silent, so Vandeloup, after contemplating
him for a few moments, had to begin the battle.

'My room is untidy, is it not?' he said, nodding his head carelessly at
the chaos of furniture. 'I'm going away for a few days.'

'A few days; ha, ha!' observed Gollipeck, something again going wrong
with his inside. 'Your destination is--

'Sydney,' replied Gaston, promptly.

'And then?' queried the doctor.

Gaston shrugged his shoulders.

'Depends upon circumstances,' he answered, lazily.

'That's a mistake,' retorted Gollipeck, leaning forward; 'it depends
upon me.'

Vandeloup smiled.

'In that case, circumstances, as represented by you, will permit me to
choose my own destinations.'

'Depends entirely upon your being guided by circumstances, as
represented by me,' retorted the Doctor, grimly.

'Pshaw!' said the Frenchman, coolly, 'let us have done with allegory,
and come to common sense. What do you want?'

'I want Octave Braulard,' said Gollipeck, rising to his feet.

Vandeloup quite expected this, and was too clever to waste time in
denying his identity.

'He stands before you,' he answered, curtly, 'what then?'

'You acknowledge, then, that you are Octave Braulard, transported to New
Caledonia for the murder of Adele Blondet?' said the Doctor tapping the
table with one hand.

'To you--yes,' answered Vandeloup, crossing to the door and locking it;
'to others--no.'

'Why do you lock the door?' asked Gollipeck, gruffly.

'I don't want my private affairs all over Melbourne,' retorted Gaston,
smoothly, returning to his position in front of the fireplace; 'are you
afraid?'

Something again went wrong with Dr Gollipeck's inside, and he grated out
a hard ironical laugh.

'Do I look afraid?' he asked, spreading out his hands.

Vandeloup stooped down to the portmanteau lying open at his feet, and
picked up a revolver, which he pointed straight at Gollipeck.

'You make an excellent target,' he observed, quickly, putting his finger
on the trigger.

Dr Gollipeck sat down, and arranged his handkerchief once more over his
knees.

'Very likely,' he answered, coolly, 'but a target you won't practise
on.'

'Why not?' asked Vandeloup, still keeping his finger on the trigger.

'Because the pistol-shot would alarm the house,' said Gollipeck,
serenely, 'and if I was found dead, you would be arrested for my murder.
If I was only wounded I could tell a few facts about M. Octave Braulard
that would have an unpleasant influence on the life of M. Gaston
Vandeloup.'

Vandeloup laid the pistol down on the mantelpiece with a laugh, lit a
cigarette, and, sitting down in a chair opposite Gollipeck, began to
talk.

'You are a brave man,' he said, coolly blowing a wreath of smoke, 'I
admire brave men.'

'You are a clever man,' retorted the doctor; 'I admire clever men.'

'Very good,' said Vandeloup, crossing one leg over the other. 'As we now
understand one another, I await your explanation of this visit.'

Dr Gollipeck, with admirable composure, placed his hands on his knees,
and acceded to the request of M. Vandeloup.

'I saw in the Ballarat and Melbourne newspapers,' he said, quietly,
'that Selina Sprotts, the servant of Mrs Villiers, was dead. The papers
said foul play was suspected, and according to the evidence of Kitty
Marchurst, whom, by the way, I remember very well, the deceased had been
poisoned. An examination was made of the body, but no traces of
poison were found. Knowing you were acquainted with Madame Midas, and
recognising this case as a peculiar one--seeing that poison was asserted
to have been given, and yet no appearances could be found--I came down
to Melbourne, saw the doctor who had analysed the body, and heard what
he had to say on the subject. The symptoms were described as apoplexy,
similar to those of a woman who died in Paris called Adele Blondet, and
whose case was reported in a book by Messrs Prevol and Lebrun. Becoming
suspicious, I assisted at a chemical analysis of the body, and found
that the woman Sprotts had been poisoned by an extract of hemlock, the
same poison used in the case of Adele Blondet. The man who poisoned
Adele Blondet was sent to New Caledonia, escaped from there, and came to
Australia, and prepared this poison at Ballarat; and why I called here
tonight was to know the reason M. Octave Braulard, better known as
Gaston Vandeloup, poisoned Selina Sprotts in mistake for Madame Midas.'

If Doctor Gollipeck had thought to upset Vandeloup by this recital, he
was never more mistaken in his life, for that young gentleman heard him
coolly to the end, and taking the cigarette out of his mouth, smiled
quietly.

'In the first place,' he said, smoothly, 'I acknowledge the truth of
all your story except the latter part, and I must compliment you on the
admirable way you have guessed the identity of Braulard with Vandeloup,
as you have no proof to show that they are the same. But with regard
to the death of Mademoiselle Sprotts, she died as you have said; but I,
though the maker of the poison, did not administer it.'

'Who did, then?' asked Gollipeck, who was quite prepared for this
denial.

Vandeloup smoothed his moustache, and looked at the doctor with a keen
glance.

'Kitty Marchurst,' he said, coolly.

The rain was beating wildly against the windows and someone in the room
below was playing the eternal waltz, 'One summer's night in Munich',
while Vandeloup, leaning back in his chair, stared at Dr Gollipeck, who
looked at him disbelievingly.

'It's not true,' he said, harshly; 'what reason had she to poison the
woman Sprotts?'

'None at all,' replied Vandeloup, blandly; 'but she had to poison Mrs
Villiers.'

'Go on,' said Gollipeck, gruffly; 'I've no doubt you will make up an
admirable story.'

'So kind of you to compliment me,' observed Vandeloup, lightly; 'but
in this instance I happen to tell the truth--Kitty Marchurst was my
mistress.'

'It was you that ruined her, then?' cried Gollipeck, pushing back his
chair.

Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

'If you put it that way--yes,' he answered, simply; 'but she fell into
my mouth like ripe fruit. Surely,' with a sneer, 'at your age you don't
believe in virtue?'

'Yes, I do,' retorted Gollipeck, fiercely.

'More fool you!' replied Gaston, with a libertine look on his handsome
face. 'Balzac never said a truer word than that "a woman's virtue is
man's greatest invention." Well, we won't discuss morality now. She came
with me to Melbourne and lived as my mistress; then she wanted to marry
me, and I refused. She had a bottle of the poison which I had made, and
threatened to take it and kill herself. I prevented her, and then she
left me, went on the stage, and afterwards meeting Madame Midas, went
to live with her, and we renewed our acquaintance. On the night of
this--well, murder, if you like to call it so--we were at a ball
together. Mademoiselle Marchurst heard that I was going to marry Madame
Midas. She asked me if it was true. I did not deny it; and she said she
would sooner poison Mrs Villiers than see her married to me. She went
home, and not knowing the dead woman was in bed with Madame Midas,
poisoned the drink, and the consequences you know. As to this story of
the hand, bah! it is a stage play, that is all!'

Dr Gollipeck rose and walked to and fro in the little clear space left
among the disorder.

'What a devil you are!' he said, looking at Vandeloup admiringly.

'What, because I did not poison this woman?' he said, in a mocking tone.
'Bah! you are less moral than I thought you were.'

The doctor did not take any notice of this sneer, but, putting his hands
in his pockets, faced round to the young man.

'I give my evidence to-morrow,' he said quietly, looking keenly at the
young man, 'and I prove conclusively the woman was poisoned. To do this,
I must refer to the case of Adele Blondet, and then that implicates
you.'

'Pardon me,' observed Vandeloup, coolly, removing some ash from his
velvet coat, 'it implicates Octave Braulard, who is at present,' with a
sharp look at Gollipeck, 'in New Caledonia.'

'If that is the case,' asked the doctor, gruffly, 'who are you?'

'I am the friend of Braulard,' said Vandeloup, in a measured tone.
'Myself, Braulard, and Prevol--one of the writers of the book you refer
to--were medical students together, and we all three emphatically knew
about this poison extracted from hemlock.'

He spoke so quietly that Gollipeck looked at him in a puzzled manner,
not understanding his meaning.

'You mean Braulard and Prevol were medical students?' he said,
doubtfully.

'Exactly,' assented M. Vandeloup, with an airy wave of his hand. 'Gaston
Vandeloup is a fictitious third person I have called into existence
for my own safety--you understand. As Gaston Vandeloup, a friend of
Braulard, I knew all about this poison, and manufactured it in Ballarat
for a mere experiment, and as Gaston Vandeloup I give evidence against
the woman who was my mistress on the ground of poisoning Selina Sprotts
with hemlock.'

'You are not shielding yourself behind this girl?' asked the doctor,
coming close to him.

'How could I?' replied Vandeloup, slipping his hand into his pocket.
'I could not have gone down to St Kilda, climbed over a wall with glass
bottles on top, and committed the crime, as Kitty Marchurst says it was
done. If I had done this there would be some trace--no, I assure you
Mademoiselle Marchurst, and none other, is the guilty woman.
She was in the room--Madame Midas asleep in bed. What was
easier for her than to pour the poison into the glass, which
stood ready to receive it? Mind you, I don't say she did it
deliberately--impulse--hallucination--madness--what you like--but she
did it.'

'By God!' cried Gollipeck, warmly, 'you'd argue a rope round the girl's
neck even before she has had a trial. I believe you did it yourself.'

'If I did,' retorted Vandeloup, coolly, 'when I am in the witness-box I
run the risk of being found out. Be it so. I take my chance of that; but
I ask you to keep silent as to Gaston Vandeloup being Octave Braulard.'

'Why should I?' said the doctor, harshly.

'For many admirable reasons,' replied Vandeloup, smoothly. 'In the first
place, as Braulard's friend, I can prove the case against Mademoiselle
Marchurst quite as well as if I appeared as Braulard himself. In the
next place, you have no evidence to prove I am identical with the
murderer of Adele Blondet; and, lastly, suppose you did prove it, what
satisfaction would it be to you to send me back to a French prison? I
have suffered enough for my crime, and now I am rich and respectable,
why should you drag me back to the depths again? Read "Les Miserables"
of our great Hugo before you answer, my friend.'

'Read the book long ago,' retorted Gollipeck, gruffly, more moved by the
argument than he cared to show; 'I will keep silent about this if you
leave the colony at once.'

'I agree,' said Vandeloup, pointing to the floor; 'you see I had already
decided to travel before you entered. Any other stipulation?'

'None,' retorted the doctor, putting on his scarf again; 'with Octave
Braulard I have nothing to do: I want to find out who killed Selina
Sprotts, and if you did, I won't spare you.'

'First, catch your hare,' replied Vandeloup, smoothly, going to the door
and unlocking it; 'I am ready to stand the test of a trial, and surely
that ought to content you. As it is, I'll stay in Melbourne long enough
to give you the satisfaction of hanging this woman for the murder, and
then I will go to America.'

Dr Gollipeck was disgusted at the smooth brutality of this man, and
moved hastily to the door.

'Will you not have a glass of wine?' asked Vandeloup, stopping him.

'Wine with you?' said the doctor, harshly, looking him up and down; 'no,
it would choke me,' and he hurried away.

'I wish it would,' observed M. Vandeloup, pleasantly, as he reentered
the room, 'whew! this devil of a doctor--what a dangerous fool, but
I have got the better of him, and at all events,' he said, lighting
another cigarette, 'I have saved Vandeloup from suffering for the crime
of Braulard.'



CHAPTER XIV

CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE


There was no doubt the Sprotts' poisoning case was the sensation of the
day in Melbourne. The papers were full of it, and some even went so far
as to give a plan of the house, with dotted lines thereon, to show
how the crime was committed. All this was extremely amusing, for, as a
matter of fact, the evidence as yet had not shown any reasonable ground
for supposing foul play had taken place. One paper, indeed, said
that far too much was assumed in the case, and that the report of the
Government analyst should be waited for before such emphatic opinions
were given by the press regarding the mode of death. But it was no use
trying to reason with the public, they had got it into their sage heads
that a crime had been committed, and demanded evidence; so as the
press had no real evidence to give, they made it up, and the public, in
private conversations, amplified the evidence until they constructed a
complete criminal case.

'Pshaw!' said Rolleston, when he read these sensational reports, 'in
spite of the quidnuncs the mountain will only produce a mouse after
all.'

But he was wrong, for now rumours were started that the Government
analyst and Dr Gollipeck had found poison in the stomach, and that,
moreover, the real criminal would be soon discovered. Public opinion was
much divided as to who the criminal was--some, having heard the story
of Madame's marriage, said it was her husband; others insisted Kitty
Marchurst was the culprit, and was trying to shield herself behind this
wild story of the hand coming from behind the curtains; while others
were in favour of suicide. At all events, on the morning when the
inquest was resumed, and the evidence was to be given of the analysis
of the stomach, the Court was crowded, and a dead silence pervaded the
place when the Government analyst stood up to give his evidence. Madame
Midas was present, with Kitty seated beside her, the latter looking pale
and ill; and Kilsip, with a gratified smile on his face which seemed
as though he had got a clue to the whole mystery, was seated next
to Calton. Vandeloup, faultlessly dressed, and as cool and calm as
possible, was also in Court; and Dr Gollipeck, as he awaited his turn to
give evidence, could not help admiring the marvellous nerve and courage
of the young man.

The Government analyst being called, was sworn in the usual way, and
deposed that the stomach of the deceased had been sent to him to be
analysed. He had used the usual tests, and found the presence of the
alkaloid of hemlock, known under the name of conia. In his opinion the
death of the deceased was caused by the administration of an extract of
hemlock. (Sensation in the Court.)

Q. Then in your opinion the deceased has been poisoned?

A. Yes, I have not the least doubt on the subject, I detected the conia
very soon after the tests were applied.

There was great excitement when this evidence was concluded, as it gave
quite a new interest to the case. The question as to the cause of death
was now set at rest--the deceased had been murdered, so the burning
anxiety of every one was to know who had committed the crime. All
sorts of opinions were given, but the murmur of voices ceased when Dr
Gollipeck stood up to give his evidence.

He deposed that he was a medical practitioner, practising at Ballarat;
he had seen the report of the case in the papers, and had come down
to Melbourne as he thought he could throw a certain light on the
affair--for instance, where the poison was procured. (Sensation.) About
three years ago a crime had been committed in Paris, which caused a
great sensation at the time. The case being a peculiar one, was reported
in a medical work, by Messieurs Prevol and Lebrun, which he had obtained
from France some two years back. The facts of the case were shortly
these: An actress called Adele Blondet died from the effects of poison,
administered to her by Octave Braulard, who was her lover; the deceased
had also another lover, called Kestrike, who was supposed to be
implicated in the crime, but he had escaped; the woman in this case had
been poisoned by an extract of hemlock, the same poison used as in the
case of Selina Sprotts, and it was the similarity of the symptoms that
made him suspicious of the sudden death. Braulard was sent out to New
Caledonia for the murder. While in Paris he had been a medical student
with two other gentlemen, one of whom was Monsieur Prevol, who had
reported the case, and the other was at present in Court, and was called
M. Gaston Vandeloup. (Sensation in Court, everyone's eye being fixed on
Vandeloup, who was calm and unmoved.) M. Vandeloup had manufactured the
poison used in this case, but with regard to how it was administered to
the deceased, he would leave that evidence to M. Vandeloup himself.

When Gollipeck left the witness-box there was a dead silence, as
everyone was too much excited at his strange story to make any comment
thereon. Madame Midas looked with some astonishment on Vandeloup as his
name was called out, and he moved gracefully to the witness-box, while
Kitty's face grew paler even than it was before. She did not know what
Vandeloup was going to say, but a great dread seized her, and with dry
lips and clenched hands she sat staring at him as if paralysed. Kilsip
stole a look at her and then rubbed his hands together, while Calton sat
absolutely still, scribbling figures on his notepaper.

M. Gaston Vandeloup, being sworn, deposed: He was a native of France, of
Flemish descent, as could be seen from his name; he had known Braulard
intimately; he also knew Prevol; he had been eighteen months in
Australia, and for some time had been clerk to Mrs Villiers at Ballarat;
he was fond of chemistry--yes; and had made several experiments
with poisons while up at Ballarat with Dr Gollipeck, who was a great
toxicologist; he had seen the hemlock in the garden of an hotel-keeper
at Ballarat, called Twexby, and had made an extract therefrom; he only
did it by way of experiment, and had put the bottle containing the
poison in his desk, forgetting all about it; the next time he saw that
bottle was in the possession of Miss Kitty Marchurst (sensation in
Court); she had threatened to poison herself; he again saw the bottle in
her possession on the night of the murder; this was at the house of M.
Meddlechip. A report had been circulated that he (the witness) was going
to marry Mrs Villiers, and Miss Marchurst asked him if it was true;
he had denied it, and Miss Marchurst had said that sooner than he
(the witness) should marry Mrs Villiers she would poison her; the next
morning he heard that Selina Sprotts was dead.

Kitty Marchurst heard all this evidence in dumb horror. She now knew
that after ruining her life this man wanted her to die a felon's death.
She arose to her feet and stretched out her hands in protest against
him, but before she could speak a word the place seemed to whirl
round her, and she fell down in a dead faint. This event caused great
excitement in court, and many began to assert positively that she must
be guilty, else why did she faint. Kitty was taken out of Court, and
the examination was proceeded with, while Madame Midas sat pale and
horror-struck at the revelations which were now being made.

The Coroner now proceeded to cross-examine Vandeloup.

Q. You say you put the bottle containing this poison into your desk; how
did Miss Marchurst obtain it?

A. Because she lived with me for some time, and had access to my private
papers.

Q. Was she your wife?

A. No, my mistress (sensation in Court).

Q. Why did she leave you?

A. We had a difference of opinion about the question of marriage, so she
left me.

Q. She wanted you to make reparation; in other words, to marry her?

A. Yes.

Q. And you refused?

A. Yes.

Q. It was on this occasion she produced the poison first?

A. Yes. She told me she had taken it from my desk, and would poison
herself if I did not marry her; she changed her mind, however, and went
away.

Q. Did you know what became of her?

A. Yes; I heard she went on the stage with M. Wopples.

Q. Did she take the poison with her?

A. Yes.

Q. How do you know she took the poison with her?

A. Because next time I saw her it was still in her possession.

Q. That was at Mr Meddlechip's ball?

A. Yes.

Q. On the night of the commission of the crime?

A. Yes.

Q. What made her take it to the ball?

A. Rather a difficult question to answer. She heard rumours that I was
to marry Mrs Villiers, and even though I denied it declined to believe
me; she then produced the poison, and said she would take it.

Q. Where did this conversation take place?

A. In the conservatory.

Q. What did you do when she threatened to take the poison?

A. I tried to take it from her.

Q. Did you succeed?

A. No; she threw it out of the door.

Q. Then when she left Mr Meddlechip's house to come home she had no
poison with her?

A. I don't think so.

Q. Did she pick the bottle up again after she threw it out?

A. No, because I went back to the ball-room with her; then I came out
myself to look for the bottle, but it was gone.

Q. You have never seen it since.

A. No, it must have been picked up by someone who was ignorant of its
contents.

Q. By your own showing, M. Vandeloup, Miss Marchurst had no poison with
her when she left Mr Meddlechip's house. How, then, could she commit
this crime?

A. She told me she still had some poison left; that she divided the
contents of the bottle she had taken from my desk, and that she still
had enough left at home to poison Mrs Villiers.

Q. Did she say she would poison Mrs Villiers?

A. Yes, sooner than see her married to me. (Sensation.)

Q. Do you believe she went away from you with the deliberate intention
of committing the crime.

A. I do.

M. Vandeloup then left the box amid great excitement, and Kilsip was
again examined. He deposed that he had searched Miss Marchurst's room,
and found half a bottle of extract of hemlock. The contents of the
bottle had been analysed, and were found identical with the conia
discovered in the stomach of the deceased.

Q. You say the bottle was half empty?

A. Rather more than that: three-quarters empty.

Q. Miss Marchurst told M. Vandeloup she had poured half the contents of
one bottle into the other. Would not this account for the bottle being
three-quarters empty?

A. Possibly; but if the first bottle was full, it is probable she would
halve the poison exactly; so if it had been untouched, it ought to be
half full.

Q. Then you think some of the contents of this bottle were used?

A. That is my opinion.

Vandeloup was recalled, and deposed that the bottle Kitty took from his
desk was quite full; and moreover, when the other bottle which had been
found in her room, was shown to him, he declared that it was as nearly
as possible the same size as the missing bottle. So the inference drawn
from this was that the bottle produced being three-quarters empty, some
of the poison had been used.

The question now arose that as the guilt of Miss Marchurst seemed so
certain, how was it that Selina Sprotts was poisoned instead of her
mistress; but this was settled by Madame Midas, who being recalled,
deposed that Kitty did not know Selina slept with her on that night, and
the curtains being drawn, could not possibly tell two people were in the
bed.

This was all the evidence obtainable, and the coroner now proceeded to
sum up.

The case, he said, was a most remarkable one, and it would be necessary
for the jury to consider very gravely all the evidence laid before them
in order to arrive at a proper conclusion before giving their verdict.
In the first place, it had been clearly proved by the Government analyst
that the deceased had died from effects of conia, which was, as they had
been told, the alkaloid of hemlock, a well-known hedge plant which grows
abundantly in most parts of Great Britain. According to the evidence of
Dr Chinston, the deceased had died from serous apoplexy, and from all
the post-mortem appearances this was the case. But they must remember
that it was almost impossible to detect certain vegetable poisons, such
as aconite and atropia, without minute chemical analysis. They would
remember a case which startled London some years ago, in which the
poisoner had poisoned his brother-in-law by means of aconite, and it
taxed all the ingenuity and cleverness of experts to find the traces of
poison in the stomach of the deceased. In this case, however, thanks to
Dr Gollipeck, who had seen the similarity of the symptoms between the
post-mortem appearance of the stomach of Adele Blondet and the present
case, the usual tests for conia were applied, and as they had been told
by the Government analyst, the result was conia was found. So they could
be quite certain that the deceased had died of poison--that poison
being conia. The next thing for them to consider was how the poison was
administered. According to the evidence of Miss Marchurst, some unknown
person had been standing outside the window and poured the poison into
the glass on the table. Mrs Villiers had stated that the window was open
all night, and from the position of the table near it--nothing would
be easier than for anyone to introduce the poison into the glass as
asserted by Miss Marchurst. On the other hand, the evidence of the
detective Kilsip went to show that no marks were visible as to anyone
having been at the window; and another thing which rendered Miss
Marchurst's story doubtful was the resemblance it had to a drama in
which she had frequently acted, called 'The Hidden Hand'. In the last
act of that drama poison was administered to one of the characters
in precisely the same manner, and though of course such a thing might
happen in real life, still in this case it was a highly suspicious
circumstance that a woman like Miss Marchurst, who had frequently acted
in the drama, should see the same thing actually occur off the stage.
Rejecting, then, as improbable the story of the hidden hand, seeing that
the evidence was strongly against it, the next thing was to look into
Miss Marchurst's past life and see if she had any motive for committing
the crime. Before doing so, however, he would point out to them that
Miss Marchurst was the only person in the room when the crime was
committed. The window in her own room and one of the windows in Mrs
Villiers' room were both locked, and the open window had a table in
front of it, so that anyone entering would very probably knock it over,
and thus awaken the sleepers. On the other hand, no one could have
entered in at the door, because they would not have had time to escape
before the crime was discovered. So it was clearly shown that Miss
Marchurst must have been alone in the room when the crime was committed.
Now to look into her past life--it was certainly not a very creditable
one. M. Vandeloup had sworn that she had been his mistress for over
a year, and had taken the poison manufactured by himself out of his
private desk. Regarding M. Vandeloup's motives in preparing such a
poison he could say nothing. Of course, he probably did it by way of
experiment to find out if this colonial grown hemlock possessed the same
poisonous qualities as it did in the old world. It was a careless thing
of him, however, to leave it in his desk, where it could be obtained,
for all such dangerous matters should be kept under lock and key. To
go back, however, to Miss Marchurst. It had been proved by M. Vandeloup
that she was his mistress, and that they quarrelled. She produced this
poison, and said she would kill herself. M. Vandeloup persuaded her to
abandon the idea, and she subsequently left him, taking the poison with
her. She then went on the stage, and subsequently left it in order to
live with Mrs Villiers as her companion. All this time she still had the
poison, and in order to prevent her losing it she put half of it into
another bottle. Now this looked very suspicious, as, if she had not
intended to use it she certainly would never have taken such trouble
over preserving it. She meets M. Vandeloup at a ball, and, hearing that
he is going to marry Mrs Villiers, she loses her head completely, and
threatens to poison herself. M. Vandeloup tries to wrench the poison
from her, whereupon she flings it into the garden. This bottle has
disappeared, and the presumption is that it was picked up. But if the
jury had any idea that the poison was administered from the lost bottle,
they might as well dismiss it from their minds, as it was absurd to
suppose such an improbable thing could happen. In the first place no one
but M. Vandeloup and Miss Marchurst knew what the contents were, and
in the second place what motive could anyone who picked it up have in
poisoning Mrs Villiers, and why should they adopt such an extraordinary
way of doing it, as Miss Marchurst asserted they did? On the other hand,
Miss Marchurst tells M. Vandeloup that she still has some poison left,
and that she will kill Mrs Villiers sooner than see her married to him.
She declares to M. Vandeloup that she will kill her, and leaves the
house to go home with, apparently, all the intention of doing so. She
comes home filled with all the furious rage of a jealous woman, and
enters Mrs Villiers' room, and here the jury will recall the evidence of
Mrs Villiers, who said Miss Marchurst did not know that the deceased
was sleeping with her. So when Miss Marchurst entered the room, she
naturally thought that Mrs Villiers was by herself, and would, as a
matter of course, refrain from drawing the curtains and looking into the
bed, in case she should awaken her proposed victim. There was a glass
with drink on the table; she was alone with Mrs Villiers, her heart
filled with jealous rage against a woman she thinks is her rival. Her
own room is a few steps away--what, then, was easier for her than to go
to her own room, obtain the poison, and put it into the glass? The
jury will remember in the evidence of Mr Kilsip, the bottle was
three-quarters empty, which argued some of it had been used. All the
evidence against Miss Marchurst was purely circumstantial, for if
she committed the crime, no human eye beheld her doing so. But the
presumption of her having done so, in order to get rid of a successful
rival, was very strong, and the weight of evidence was dead against her.
The jury would, therefore, deliver their verdict in accordance with the
facts laid before them.

The jury retired, and the court was very much excited. Everyone was
quite certain that Kitty was guilty, but there was a strong feeling
against M. Vandeloup as having been in some measure the cause, though
indirectly, of the crime. But that young gentleman, in accordance with
his usual foresight, had left the court and gone straight home, as he
had no wish to face a crowd of sullen faces, and perhaps worse. Madame
Midas sat still in the court awaiting the return of the jury, with the
calm face of a marble sphinx. But, though she suffered, no appearances
of suffering were seen on her serene face. She never had believed in
human nature, and now the girl whom she had rescued from comparative
poverty and placed in opulence had wanted to kill her. M. Vandeloup,
whom she admired and trusted, what black infamy he was guilty of--he had
sworn most solemnly he never harmed Kitty, and yet he was the man who
had ruined her. Madame Midas felt that the worst had come--Vandeloup
false, Kitty a murderess, her husband vanished, and Selina dead. All the
world was falling into ruins around her, and she remained alone amid
the ruins with her enormous fortune, like a golden statue in a deserted
temple. With clasped hands, aching heart, but impassive face, she sat
waiting for the end.

The jury returned in about half an hour, and there was a dead silence as
the foreman stood up to deliver the verdict.

The jury found as follows:--

That the deceased, Selina Jane Sprotts, died on the 21st day of
November, from the effects of poison, namely, conia, feloniously
administered by one Katherine Marchurst, and the jury, on their oaths,
say that the said Katherine Marchurst feloniously, wilfully, and
maliciously did murder the said deceased.

That evening Kitty was arrested and lodged in the Melbourne Gaol, to
await her trial on a charge of wilful murder.



CHAPTER XV

KISMET


Of two evils it is always best to choose the least, and as M. Vandeloup
had to choose between the loss of his popularity or his liberty, he
chose to lose the former instead of the latter. After all, as he argued
to himself, Australia at large is a small portion of the world, and
in America no one would know anything about his little escapade in
connection with Kitty. He knew that he was in Gollipeck's power, and
that unless he acceded to that gentleman's demand as to giving evidence
he would be denounced to the authorities as an escaped convict from New
Caledonia, and would be sent back there. Of course, his evidence could
not but prove detrimental to himself, seeing how badly he had behaved to
Kitty, but still as going through the ordeal meant liberty, he did so,
and the result was as he had foreseen. Men, as a rule, are not very
squeamish, and view each other's failings, especially towards women,
with a lenient eye, but Vandeloup had gone too far, and the Bachelors'
Club unanimously characterised his conduct as 'damned shady', so a
letter was sent requesting M. Vandeloup to take his name off the books
of the club. He immediately resigned, and wrote a polite letter to the
secretary, which brought uneasy blushes to the cheek of that gentleman
by its stinging remarks about his and his fellow clubmen's morality. He
showed it to several of the members, but as they all had their little
redeeming vices, they determined to take no notice, and so M. Vandeloup
was left alone. Another thing which happened was that he was socially
ostracised from society, and his table, which used to be piled up with
invitations, soon became quite bare. Of course, he knew he could force
Meddlechip to recognise him, but he did not choose to do so, as all his
thoughts were fixed on America. He had plenty of money, and with a
new name and a brand new character, Vandeloup thought he would prosper
exceedingly well in the States. So he stayed at home, not caring to
face the stony faces of friends who cut him, and waited for the trial
of Kitty Marchurst, after which he intended to leave for Sydney at once,
and take the next steamer to San Francisco. He did not mind waiting, but
amused himself reading, smoking, and playing, and was quite independent
of Melbourne society. Only two things worried him, and the first of
these was the annoyance of Pierre Lemaire, who seemed to have divined
his intention of going away, and haunted him day and night like an
unquiet spirit. Whenever Vandeloup looked out, he saw the dumb man
watching the house, and if he went for a walk, Pierre would slouch
sullenly along behind him, as he had done in the early days. Vandeloup
could have called in the aid of a policeman to rid himself of this
annoyance, but the fact was he was afraid of offending Pierre, as he
might be tempted to reveal what he knew, and the result would not be
pleasant. So Gaston bore patiently with the disagreeable system of
espionage the dumb man kept over him, and consoled himself with the idea
that once he was on his way to America, it would not matter two straws
whether Pierre told all he knew, or kept silent. The other thing which
troubled the young man were the words Kitty had made use of in Mrs
Villiers' drawing-room regarding the secret she said she knew. It made
him uneasy, for he half guessed what it was, and thought she might tell
it to someone out of revenge, and then there would be more troubles for
him to get out of. Then, again, he argued that she was too fond of him
ever to tell anything likely to injure him, even though he had put
a rope round her neck. If he could have settled the whole affair
by running away, he would have done so, but Gollipeck was still in
Melbourne, and Gaston knew he could not leave the town without the
terrible old man finding it out, and bringing him back. At last the
torture of wondering how much Kitty knew was too much for him, and he
determined to go to the Melbourne gaol and interview her. So he obtained
an order from the authorities to see her, and prepared to start next
morning. He sent the servant out for a hansom, and by the time it was at
the door, M. Vandeloup, cool, calm, and well dressed, came down stairs
pulling on his gloves. The first thing he saw when he got outside was
Pierre waiting for him with his old hat pulled down over his eyes, and
his look of sullen resignation. Gaston nodded coolly to him, and told
the cabby he wanted to go to the Melbourne gaol, whereupon Pierre
slouched forward as the young man was preparing to enter the cab, and
laid his hand on his arm.

'Well,' said Vandeloup, in a quiet voice, in French, shaking off the
dumb man's arm, 'what do you want?'

Pierre pointed to the cab, whereupon M. Vandeloup shrugged his
shoulders. 'Surely you don't want to come to the gaol with me,' he said,
mockingly, 'you'll get there soon enough.'

The other nodded, and made a step towards the cab, but Vandeloup pushed
him back.

'Curse the fool,' he muttered to himself, 'I'll have to humour him or
he'll be making a scene--you can't come,' he added aloud, but Pierre
still refused to go away.

This conversation or rather monologue, seeing M. Vandeloup was the only
speaker, was carried on in French, so the cabman and the servant at the
door were quite ignorant of its purport, but looked rather astonished
at the conduct of the dirty tramp towards such an elegant-looking
gentleman. Vandeloup saw this and therefore determined to end the scene.

'Well, well,' he said to Pierre in French, 'get in at once,' and
then when the dumb man entered the cab, he explained to the cabman in
English:--'This poor devil is a pensioner of mine, and as he wants to
see a friend of his in gaol I'll take him with me.'

He stepped into the cab which drove off, the cabman rather astonished
at the whole affair, but none the less contented himself with merely
winking at the pretty servant girl who stood on the steps, whereupon she
tossed her head and went inside.

As they drove along Vandeloup said nothing to Pierre, not that he did
not want to, but he mistrusted the trap-door in the roof of the cab,
which would permit the cabman to overhear everything. So they went along
in silence, and when they arrived at the gaol Vandeloup told the cabman
to wait for him, and walked towards the gaol.

'You are coming inside, I suppose,' he said, sharply, to Pierre, who
still slouched alongside.

The dumb man nodded sullenly.

Vandeloup cursed Pierre in his innermost heart, but smiled blandly and
agreed to let him enter with him. There was some difficulty with the
warder at the door, as the permission to see the prisoner was only made
out in the name of M. Vandeloup, but after some considerable trouble
they succeeded in getting in.

'My faith!' observed Gaston, lightly, as they went along to the cell,
conducted by a warder, 'it's almost as hard to get into gaol as to get
out of it.'

The warder admitted them both to Kitty's cell, and left them alone with
her. She was seated on the bed in the corner of the cell, in an attitude
of deepest dejection. When they entered she looked up in a mechanical
sort of manner, and Vandeloup could see how worn and pinched-looking her
face was. Pierre went to one end of the cell and leaned against the wall
in an indifferent manner, while Vandeloup stood right in front of
the unhappy woman. Kitty arose when she saw him, and an expression of
loathing passed over her haggard-looking face.

'Ah!' she said, bitterly, rejecting Vandeloup's preferred hand, 'so you
have come to see your work; well, look around at these bare walls;
see how thin and ugly I have grown; think of the crime with which I am
charged, and surely even Gaston Vandeloup will be satisfied.'

The young man sneered.

'Still as good at acting as ever, I see,' he said, mockingly; 'cannot
you even see a friend without going into these heroics?'

'Why have you come here?' she asked, drawing herself up to her full
height.

'Because I am your friend,' he answered, coolly.

'My friend!' she echoed, scornfully, looking at him with contempt; 'you
ruined my life a year ago, now you have endeavoured to fasten the guilt
of murder on me, and yet you call yourself my friend; a good story,
truly,' with a bitter laugh.

'I could not help giving the evidence I did,' replied Gaston, coolly,
shrugging his shoulders; 'if you are innocent, what I say will not
matter.'

'If I am innocent!' she said, looking at him steadily; 'you villain, you
know I am innocent!'

'I know nothing of the sort.'

Then you believe I committed the crime?'

'I do.'

Kitty sat helplessly down on the bed, and passed her hand across her
eyes.

'My God!' she muttered, 'I am going mad.'

'Not at all unlikely,' he replied, carelessly.

She looked vacantly round the cell, and caught sight of Pierre shrinking
back into the shadow.

'Why did you bring your accomplice with you?' she said, looking at
Gaston.

M. Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

'Really, my dear Bebe,' he said, lazily, 'I don't know why you should
call him my accomplice, as I have committed no crime.'

'Have you not?' she said, rising to her feet, and bending towards him,
'think again.'

Vandeloup shook his head, with a smile.

'No, I do not think I have,' he answered, glancing keenly at her; 'I
suppose you want me to be as black as yourself?'

'You coward!' she said, in a rage, turning on him, 'how dare you
taunt me in this manner? it is not enough that you have ruined me, and
imperilled my life, without jeering at me thus, you coward?'

'Bah!' retorted Vandeloup, cynically, brushing some dust off his coat,
'this is not the point; you insinuate that I committed a crime, perhaps
you will tell me what kind of a crime?'

'Murder,' she replied, in a whisper.

'Oh, indeed,' sneered Gaston, coolly, though his lips twitched a little,
'the same style of crime as your own? and whose murder am I guilty of,
pray?'

'Randolph Villiers.'

Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

'Who can prove it?' he asked, contemptuously.

'I can!'

'You,' with a sneer, 'a murderess?'

'Who can prove I am a murderess?' she cried, wildly.

'I can,' he answered, with an ugly look; 'and I will if you don't keep a
quiet tongue.'

'I will keep quiet no longer,' boldly rising and facing Vandeloup, with
her hands clenched at her sides; 'I have tried to shield you faithfully
through all your wickedness, but now that you accuse me of committing
a crime, which accusation you know is false, I accuse you, Gaston
Vandeloup, and your accomplice, yonder,' wheeling round and pointing to
Pierre, who shrank away, 'of murdering Randolph Villiers, at the Black
Hill, Ballarat, for the sake of a nugget of gold he carried.'

Vandeloup looked at her disdainfully.

'You are mad,' he said, in a cold voice; 'this is the raving of a
lunatic; there is no proof of what you say; it was proved conclusively
that myself and Pierre were asleep at our hotel while M. Villiers was
with Jarper at two o'clock in the morning.'

'I know that was proved,' she retorted, 'and by some jugglery on your
part; but, nevertheless, I saw you and him,' pointing again to Pierre,
'murder Villiers.'

'You saw it,' echoed Vandeloup, with a disbelieving smile; 'tell me
how?'

'Ah!' she cried, making a step forward, 'you do not believe me, but
I tell you it is true--yes, I know now who the two men were following
Madame Midas as she drove away: one was her husband, who wished to rob
her, and the other was Pierre, who, acting upon your instructions,
was to get the gold from Villiers should he succeed in getting it from
Madame. You left me a few minutes afterwards, but I, with my heart full
of love--wretched woman that I was--followed you at a short distance,
unwilling to lose sight of you even for a little time. I climbed down
among the rocks and saw you seat yourself in a narrow part of the path.
Curiosity then took the place of love, and I watched to see what you
were going to do. Pierre--that wretch who cowers in the corner--came
down the path and you spoke to him in French. What was said I did
not know, but I guessed enough to know you meditated some crime. Then
Villiers came down the path with the nugget in its box under his arm.
I recognised the box as the one which Madame Midas had brought to our
house. When Villiers came opposite you you spoke to him; he tried to
pass on, and then Pierre sprang out from behind the rock and the two men
struggled together, while you seized the box containing the gold, which
Villiers had let fall, and watched the struggle. You saw that Villiers,
animated by despair, was gradually gaining the victory over Pierre, and
then you stepped in--yes; I saw you snatch Pierre's knife from the back
of his waist and stab Villiers in the back. Then you put the knife into
Pierre's hand, all bloody, as Villiers fell dead, and I fled away.'

She stopped, breathless with her recital, and Vandeloup, pale but
composed, would have answered her, when a cry from Pierre startled them.
He had come close to them, and was looking straight at Kitty.

'My God!' he cried; 'then I am innocent?'

'You!' shrieked Kitty, falling back on her bed; 'who are you?'

The man pulled his hat off and came a step nearer.

'I am Randolph Villiers!'

Kitty shrieked again and covered her face with her hands, while
Vandeloup laughed in a mocking manner, though his pale face and
quivering lip told that his mirth was assumed.

'Yes,' said Villiers, throwing his hat on the floor of the cell, 'it was
Pierre Lemaire, and not I, who died. The struggle took place as you have
described, but he,' pointing to Vandeloup, 'wishing to get rid of Pierre
for reasons of his own stabbed him, and not me, in the back. He thrust
the knife into my hand, and I, in my blind fury, thought that I had
murdered the dumb man. I was afraid of being arrested for the murder,
so, as suggested by Vandeloup, I changed clothes with the dead man and
wrapped my own up in a bundle. We hid the body and the nugget in one of
the old mining shafts and then came down to Ballarat. I was similar to
Pierre in appearance, except that my chin was shaven. I went down to the
Wattle Tree Hotel as Pierre after leaving my clothes outside the window
of the bedroom which Vandeloup pointed out to me. Then he went to
the theatre and told me to rejoin him there as Villiers. I got my own
clothes into the room, dressed again as myself; then, locking the door,
so that the people of the hotel might suppose that Pierre slept, I
jumped out of the window of the bedroom and went to the theatre. There
I played my part as you know, and while we were behind the scenes Mr
Wopples asked me to put out the gas in his room. I did so, and took from
his dressing-table a black beard, in order to disguise myself as Pierre
till my beard had grown. We went to supper, and then I parted with
Jarper at two o'clock in the morning, and went back to the hotel, where
I climbed into the bedroom through the window and reassumed Pierre's
dress for ever. It was by Vandeloup's advice I pretended to be drunk, as
I could not go to the Pactolus, where my wife would have recognised me.
Then I, as the supposed Pierre, was discharged, as you know. Vandeloup,
aping friendship, drew the dead man's salary and bought clothes and
a box for me. In the middle of one night I still disguised as Pierre,
slipped out of the window, and went up to Black Hill, where I found the
nugget and brought it down to my room at the Wattle Tree Hotel. Then
Vandeloup brought in the box with my clothes, and we packed the nugget
in it, together with the suit I had worn at the time of the murder.
Following his instructions, I came down to Melbourne, and there disposed
of the nugget--no need to ask how, as there are always people ready to
do things of that sort for payment. When I was paid for the nugget, and
I only got eight hundred pounds, the man who melted it down taking the
rest, I had to give six hundred to Vandeloup, as I was in his power as
I thought, and dare not refuse in case he should denounce me for the
murder of Pierre Lemaire. And now I find that I have been innocent all
the time, and he has been frightening me with a shadow. He, not I, was
the murderer of Pierre Lemaire, and you can prove it.'

During all this recital, which Kitty listened to with staring eyes,
Vandeloup had stood quite still, revolving in his own mind how he
could escape from the position in which he found himself. When Villiers
finished his recital he raised his head and looked defiantly at both his
victims.

'Fate has placed the game in your hands,' he said coolly, while they
stood and looked at him; 'but I'm not beaten yet, my friend. May I ask
what you intend to do?'

'Prove my innocence,' said Villiers, boldly.

'Indeed!' sneered Gaston, 'at my expense, I presume.'

'Yes! I will denounce you as the murderer of Pierre Lemaire.'

'And I,' said Kitty, quickly, 'will prove Villiers' innocence.'

Vandeloup turned on her with all the lithe, cruel grace of a tiger.

'First you must prove your own innocence,' he said, in a low, fierce
voice. 'Yes; if you can hang me for the murder of Pierre Lemaire, I can
hang you for the murder of Selina Sprotts; yes, though I know you did
not do it.'

'Ah!' said Kitty, quickly, springing forward, 'you know who committed
the crime.'

'Yes,' replied Vandeloup, slowly, 'the man who committed the crime
intended to murder Madame Midas, and he was the man who hated her and
wished her dead--her husband.'

'I?' cried Villiers, starting forward, 'you lie.'

Vandeloup wheeled round quickly on him, and, getting close to him, spoke
rapidly.

'No, I do not lie,' he said, in a concentrated voice of anger; 'you
followed me up to the house of M. Meddlechip, and hid among the trees
on the lawn to watch the house; you saw Bebe throw the bottle out, and
picked it up; then you went to St Kilda and, climbing over the wall,
committed the crime, as she,' pointing to Kitty, 'saw you do; I met
you in the street near the house after you had committed it, and see,'
plunging his hand into Villiers' pocket, 'here is the bottle which
contained the poison,' and he held up to Kitty the bottle with the two
red bands round it, which she had thrown away.

'It is false!' cried Villiers, in despair, seeing that all the evidence
was against him.

'Prove it, then,' retorted Vandeloup, knocking at the door to summon the
warder. 'Save your own neck before you put mine in danger.'

The door opened, and the warder appeared. Kitty and Villiers gazed
horror-struck at one another, while Vandeloup, without another word,
rapidly left the cell. The warder beckoned to Villiers to come, and,
with a deep sigh, he obeyed.

'Where are you going?' asked Kitty, as he moved towards the door.

'Going?' he repeated, mechanically. 'I am going to see my wife.'

He left the cell, and when he got outside the gaol he saw the hansom
with Vandeloup in it driving rapidly away. Villiers looked at the
retreating vehicle in despair. 'My God,' he murmured, raising his face
to the blue sky with a frightful expression of despair; 'how am I to
escape the clutches of this devil?'



CHAPTER XVI

BE SURE THY SIN WILL FIND THEE OUT


Madame Midas was a remarkably plucky woman, but it needed all her pluck
and philosophy to bear up against the terrible calamities which were
befalling her. Her faith in human nature was completely destroyed, and
she knew that all the pleasure of doing good had gone out of her life.
The discovery of Kitty's baseness had wounded her deeply, and she found
it difficult to persuade herself that the girl had not been the victim
of circumstances. If Kitty had only trusted her when she came to live
with her all this misery and crime would have been avoided, for she
would have known Madame Midas would never have married Vandeloup,
and thus would have had no motive for committing the crime. Regarding
Vandeloup's pretensions to her hand, Mrs Villiers laughed bitterly to
herself. After the misery of her early marriage it was not likely she
was going to trust herself and her second fortune again to a man's
honour. She sighed as she thought what her future life must be. She was
wealthy, it was true, but amid all her riches she would never be able to
know the meaning of friendship, for all who came near her now would have
some motive in doing so, and though Madame Midas was anxious to do
good with her wealth, yet she knew she could never expect gratitude in
return. The comedy of human life is admirable when one is a spectator;
but ah! the actors know they are acting, and have to mask their faces
with smiles, restrain the tears which they would fain let flow, and
mouth witty sayings with breaking hearts. Surely the most bitter of
all feelings is that cynical disbelief in human nature which is so
characteristic of our latest civilization.

Madame Midas, however, now that Melbourne was so hateful to her,
determined to leave it, and sent up to Mr Calton in order to confer with
him on the subject. Calton came down to St Kilda, and was shown into the
drawing-room where Mrs Villiers, calm and impenetrable looking as ever,
sat writing letters. She arose as the barrister entered, and gave him
her hand.

'It was kind of you to come so quickly,' she said, in her usual quiet,
self-contained manner; 'I wish to consult you on some matters of
importance.'

'I am at your service, Madame,' replied Calton, taking a seat, and
looking keenly at the marble face before him; 'I am glad to see you
looking so well, considering what you have gone through.'

Mrs Villiers let a shadowy smile flit across her face.

'They say the Red Indian becomes utterly indifferent to the torture of
his enemies after a certain time,' she answered, coldly; 'I think it is
the same with me. I have been deceived and disillusionized so completely
that I have grown utterly callous, and nothing now can move me either to
sorrow or joy.'

'A curious answer from a curious woman,' thought Calton, glancing at
her as she sat at the writing-table in her black dress with the knots of
violet ribbons upon it; 'what queer creatures experience makes us.'

Madame Midas folded her hands loosely on the table, and looked dreamily
out of the open French window, and at the trellis covered with creeping
plants beyond, through which the sun was entering in pencils of golden
light. Life would have been so sweet to her if she had only been content
to be deceived like other people; but then she was not of that kind.
Faith with her was a religion, and when religion is taken away, what
remains?--nothing.

'I am going to England,' she said, abruptly, to Calton, rousing herself
out of these painful reflections.

'After the trial, I presume?' observed Calton, slowly.

'Yes,' she answered, hesitatingly; 'do you think they will--they
will--hang the girl?'

Calton shrugged his shoulders. 'I can't tell you,' he answered, with
a half smile; 'if she is found guilty--well--I think she will be
imprisoned for life.'

'Poor Kitty,' said Madame, sadly, 'it was an evil hour when you met
Vandeloup. What do you think of him?' she asked, suddenly.

'He's a scoundrel,' returned Calton, decisively; still, a clever one,
with a genius for intrigue; he should have lived in the times of Borgian
Rome, where his talents would have been appreciated; now we have lost
the art of polite murder.'

'Do you know,' said Mrs Villiers, musingly, leaning back in her chair,
'I cannot help thinking Kitty is innocent of this crime.'

'She may be,' returned Calton, ambiguously, 'but the evidence seems very
strong against her.'

'Purely circumstantial,' interrupted Madame Midas, quickly.

'Purely circumstantial, as you say,' assented Calton; 'still, some
new facts may be discovered before the trial which may prove her to be
innocent. After the mystery which enveloped the death of Oliver Whyte
in the hansom cab murder I hesitate giving a decided answer, in any case
till everything has been thoroughly sifted; but, if not Kitty Marchurst,
whom do you suspect--Vandeloup?'

'No; he wanted to marry me, not to kill me.'

'Have you any enemy, then, who would do such a thing?'

'Yes; my husband.'

'But he is dead.'

'He disappeared,' corrected Madame, 'but it was never proved that he was
dead. He was a revengeful, wicked man, and if he could have killed me,
without hurting himself, he would,' and rising from her seat she paced
up and down the room slowly.

'I know your sad story,' said the barrister, 'and also how your husband
disappeared; but, to my mind, looking at all the circumstances, you will
not be troubled with him again.'

A sudden exclamation made him turn his head, and he saw Madame Midas,
white as death, staring at the open French window, on the threshold of
which was standing a man--medium height, black beard, and a haggard,
hunted look in his eyes.

'Who is this?' cried Calton, rising to his feet.

Madame Midas tottered, and caught at the mantelpiece for support.

'My husband,' she said, in a whisper.

'Alive?' said Calton, turning to the man at the window.

'I should rather think so,' said Villiers, insolently, advancing into
the room; 'I don't look like a dead man, do I?'

Madame Midas sprang forward and caught his wrist.

'So you have come back, murderer!' she hissed in his ear.

'What do you mean?' said her husband, wrenching his hand away.

'Mean?' she cried, vehemently; 'you know what I mean. You cut yourself
off entirely from me by your attempt on my life, and the theft of the
gold; you dare not have showed yourself in case you received the reward
of your crime; and so you worked in the dark against me. I knew you were
near, though I did not see you; and you for a second time attempted my
life.'

'I did not,' muttered Villiers, shrinking back from the indignant blaze
of her eyes. 'I can prove--'

'You can prove,' she burst out, contemptuously, drawing herself up to
her full height, 'Yes! you can prove anything with your cowardly nature
and lying tongue; but prove that you were not the man who came in the
dead of night and poisoned the drink waiting for me, which was taken by
my nurse. You can prove--yes, as God is my judge, you shall prove it, in
the prisoner's dock, e'er you go to the gallows.'

During all this terrible speech, Villiers had crouched on the ground,
half terrified, while his wife towered over him, magnificent in her
anger. At the end, however, he recovered himself a little, and began to
bluster.

'Every man has a right to a hearing,' he said, defiantly, looking from
his wife to Calton; 'I can explain everything.'

Madame Midas pointed to a chair.

'I have no doubt you will prove black is white by your lying,' she said,
coldly, returning to her seat; 'I await this explanation.'

Thereupon Villiers sat down and told them the whole story of his
mysterious disappearance, and how he had been made a fool of by
Vandeloup. When he had ended, Calton, who had resumed his seat, and
listened to the recital with deep interest, stole a glance at Madame
Midas, but she looked as cold and impenetrable as ever.

'I understand, now, the reason of your disappearance,' she said, coldly;
'but that is not the point. I want to know the reason you tried to
murder me a second time.'

'I did not,' returned Villiers, quietly, with a gesture of dissent.

'Then Selina Sprotts, since you are so particular,' retorted his wife,
with a sneer; 'but it was you who committed the crime.'

'Who says I did?' cried Villiers, standing up.

'No one,' put in Calton, looking at him sharply, 'but as you had a
grudge against your wife, it is natural for her to suspect you, at the
same time it is not necessary for you to criminate yourself.'

'I am not going to do so,' retorted Villiers; 'if you think I'd be such
a fool as to commit a crime and then trust myself to my wife's tender
mercies, you are very much mistaken. I am as innocent of the murder as
the poor girl who is in prison.'

'Then she is not guilty?' cried Mrs Villiers, rising.

'No,' returned Villiers, coldly, 'she is innocent.'

'Oh, indeed,' said Calton, quietly; 'then if you both are innocent, who
is the guilty person?'

Villiers was about to speak when another man entered the open window.
This was none other than Kilsip, who advanced eagerly to Villiers.

'He has come in at the gate,' he said, quickly.

'Have you the warrant,' asked Villiers, as a sharp ring was heard at the
front door.

Kilsip nodded, and Villiers turned on his wife and Calton, who were too
much astonished to speak.

'You asked me who committed the crime,' he said, in a state of
suppressed excitement; 'look at that door,' pointing to the door which
led into the hall, 'and you will see the real murderer of Selina Sprotts
appear.'

Calton and Madame Midas turned simultaneously, and the seconds seemed
like hours as they waited with bated breath for the opening of the
fatal door. The same name was on their lips as they gazed with intense
expectation, and that name was--Gaston Vandeloup.

The noise of approaching footsteps, a rattle at the handle of the door,
and it was flung wide open as the servant announced--

'Mr Jarper.'

Yes, there he stood, meek, apologetic, and smiling--the fast-living
bank-clerk, the darling of society, and the secret assassin--Mr
Bartholomew Jarper.

He advanced smilingly into the room, when suddenly the smile died away,
and his face blanched as his eyes rested on Villiers. He made a step
backward as if to fly, but in a moment Kilsip was on him.

'I arrest you in the Queen's name for the murder of Selina Sprotts,' and
he slipped the handcuffs on his wrists.

The wretched young man fell down on the floor with an agonised shriek.

'It's a lie--it's a lie,' he howled, beating his manacled hands on the
carpet, 'none can prove I did it.'

'What about Vandeloup?' said Villiers, looking at the writhing figure at
his feet, 'and this proof?' holding out the bottle with the red bands.

Jarper looked up with an expression of abject fear on his white face,
then with a shriek fell back again in a swoon.

Kilsip went to the window and a policeman appeared in answer to his
call, then between them they lifted up the miserable wretch and took him
to a cab which was waiting, and were soon driving off up to the station,
from whence Jarper was taken to the Melbourne gaol.

Calton turned to Madame Midas and saw that she also had fainted and was
lying on the floor. He summoned the servants to attend to her, then,
making Villiers come with him, he went up to his office in town in order
to get the whole story of the discovery of the murderer.

The papers were full of it next day, and Villiers' statement, together
with Jarper's confession, were published side by side. It appeared that
Jarper had been living very much above his income, and in order to get
money he had forged Mrs Villiers' name for several large amounts. Afraid
of being discovered, he was going to throw himself on her mercy and
confess all, which he would have done had Madame Midas come to the
Meddlechip's ball. But overhearing the conversation between Kitty and
Vandeloup in the conservatory, and seeing the bottle flung out, he
thought if he secured it he could poison Madame Midas without suspicion
and throw the guilt upon Kitty. He secured the bottle immediately after
Vandeloup took Kitty back to the ball-room, and then went down to St
Kilda to commit the crime. He knew the house thoroughly as he had often
been in it, and saw that the window of Madame's room was open. He then
put his overcoat on the glass bottles on top of the wall and leapt
inside, clearing the bushes. He stole across the lawn and stepped over
the flower-bed, carefully avoiding making any marks. He had the bottle
of poison with him, but was apparently quite ignorant how he was to
introduce it into the house, but on looking through the parting of the
curtains he saw the glass with the drink on the table. Guessing that
Madame Midas was in bed and would probably drink during the night, he
put his hand through the curtains and poured all the poison into the
glass, then noiselessly withdrew. He jumped over the wall again, put on
his overcoat, and thought he was safe, when he found M. Vandeloup was
watching him and had seen him in all his actions. Vandeloup, whose
subtle brain immediately saw that if Madame Midas was dead he could
throw the blame on Kitty and thus get rid of her without endangering
himself, agreed to keep silent, but made Jarper give up the bottle
to him. When Jarper had gone Vandeloup, a few yards further down, met
Villiers, but supposed that he had just come on the scene. Villiers,
however, had been watching the house all night, and had also been
watching Meddlechip's. The reason for this was he thought his wife was
at the ball, and wanted to speak to her. He had followed Kitty and
Mrs Killer down to St Kilda by hanging on to the back of the brougham,
thinking the latter was his wife. Finding his mistake, he hung round the
house for about an hour without any object, and was turning round the
corner to go home when he saw Jarper jump over the wall, and, being
unseen in the shadow, overheard the conversation and knew that Jarper
had committed the crime. He did not, however, dare to accuse Jarper of
murder, as he thought it was in Vandeloup's power to denounce him as the
assassin of Pierre Lemaire, so for his own safety kept quiet. When he
heard the truth from Kitty in the prison he would have denounced the
Frenchman at once as the real criminal, but was so bewildered by
the rapid manner in which Vandeloup made up a case against him, and
especially by the bottle being produced out of his pocket--which bottle
Vandeloup, of course, had in his hand all the time--that he permitted
him to escape. When he left the gaol, however, he went straight to the
police-office and told his story, when a warrant was immediately granted
for the arrest of Jarper. Kilsip took the warrant and went down to St
Kilda to Mrs Villiers' house to see her before arresting Jarper; but,
as before described, Jarper came down to the house on business from the
bank and was arrested at once.

Of course, there was great excitement over the discovery of the real
murderer, especially as Jarper was so well known in Melbourne society,
but no one pitied him. In the days of his prosperity he had been
obsequious to his superiors and insolent to those beneath him, so
that all he gained was the contempt of one and the hate of the other.
Luckily, he had no relatives whom his crime would have disgraced, and as
he had not succeeded in getting rid of Madame Midas, he intended to have
run away to South America, and had forged a cheque in her name for a
large amount in order to supply himself with funds. Unhappily, however,
he had paid that fatal visit and had been arrested, and since then had
been in a state of abject fear, begging and praying that his life might
be spared. His crime, however, had awakened such indignation that the
law was allowed to take its course, so early one wet cold morning
Barty Jarper was delivered into the hands of the hangman, and his mean,
pitiful little soul was launched into eternity.

Kitty was of course released, but overwhelmed with shame and agony at
all her past life having been laid bare, she did not go to see Madame
Midas, but disappeared amid the crowd, and tried to hide her infamy from
all, although, poor girl, she was more sinned against than sinning.

Vandeloup, for whom a warrant was out for the murder of Lemaire, had
also disappeared, and was supposed to have gone to America.

Madame Midas suffered severely from the shocks she had undergone with
the discovery of everyone's baseness. She settled a certain income on
her husband, on condition she never was to see him again, which offer he
readily accepted, and having arranged all her affairs in Australia,
she left for England, hoping to find in travel some alleviation, if not
forgetfulness, of the sorrow of the past. A good woman--a noble woman,
yet one who went forth into the world broken-hearted and friendless,
with no belief in anyone and no pleasure in life. She, however, was of
too fine a nature ever to sink into the base, cynical indifference of a
misanthropic life, and the wealth which she possessed was nobly used
by her to alleviate the horrors of poverty and to help those who needed
help. Like Midas, the Greek King, from whence her quaint name was
derived, she had turned everything she touched into gold, and though it
brought her no happiness, yet it was the cause of happiness to others;
but she would give all her wealth could she but once more regain that
trust in human nature which had been so cruelly betrayed.



EPILOGUE

THE WAGES OF SIN


Such a hot night as it was--not a breath of wind, and the moon, full
orbed, dull and yellow, hangs like a lamp in the dark blue sky. Low
down on the horizon are great masses of rain clouds, ragged and
angry-looking, and the whole firmament seems to weigh down on the still
earth, where everything is burnt and parched, the foliage of the trees
hanging limp and heavily, and the grass, yellow and sere, mingling with
the hot, white dust of the roads. Absolute stillness everywhere down
here by the Yarra Yarra, not even the river making a noise as it sweeps
swiftly down on its winding course between its low mud banks. No bark of
a dog or human voice breaks the stillness; not even the sighing of the
wind through the trees. And throughout all this unearthly silence a
nervous vitality predominates, for the air is full of electricity, and
the subtle force is permeating the whole scene. A long trail of silver
light lies on the dark surface of the river rolling along, and here and
there the current swirls into sombre, cruel-looking pools--or froths,
and foams in lines of dirty white around the trunks of spectral-looking
gum trees, which stretch out their white, scarred branches over the
waters.

Just a little way below the bridge which leads to the Botanical Gardens,
on the near side of the river, stands an old, dilapidated bathing-house,
with its long row of dressing-rooms, doorless and damp-looking. A broad,
irregular wooden platform is in front of these, and slopes gradually
down to the bank, from whence narrow, crazy-looking steps, stretching
the whole length of the platform, go down beneath the sullen waters. And
all this covered with black mould and green slime, with whole armies of
spiders weaving grey, dusky webs in odd corners, and a broken-down fence
on the left half buried in bush rank grass--an evil-looking place even
in the daytime, and ten times more evil-looking and uncanny under the
light of the moon, which fills it with vague shadows. The rough,
slimy platform is deserted, and nothing is heard but the squeaking and
scampering of the water-rats, and every now and then the gurgling of
the river as it races past, as if it was laughing quietly in a ghastly
manner over the victims it had drowned.

Suddenly a black shadow comes gliding along the narrow path by the
river bank, and pauses a moment at the entrance to the platform. Then it
listens for a few minutes, and again hurries down to the crazy-looking
steps. The black shadow standing there, like the genius of solitude, is
a woman, and she has apparently come to add herself to the list of the
cruel-looking river's victims. Standing there, with one hand on the
rough rail, and staring with fascinated eyes on the dull muddy water,
she does not hear a step behind her. The shadow of a man, who has
apparently followed her, glides from behind the bathing-shed, and
stealing down to the woman on the verge of the stream, lays a delicate
white hand on her shoulder. She turns with a startled cry, and Kitty
Marchurst and Gaston Vandeloup are looking into one another's eyes.
Kitty's charming face is worn and pallid, and the hand which clutches
her shawl is trembling nervously as she gazes at her old lover. There
he stands, dressed in old black clothes, worn and tattered looking, with
his fair auburn hair all tangled and matted; his chin covered with
a short stubbly beard of some weeks' growth, and his face gaunt and
haggard-looking--the very same appearance as he had when he landed in
Australia. Then he sought to preserve his liberty; now he is seeking to
preserve his life. They gaze at one another in a fascinated manner for
a few moments, and then Gaston removes his hand from the girl's shoulder
with a sardonic laugh, and she buries her face in her hands with a
stifled sob.

'So this is the end,' he said, pointing to the river, and fixing his
scintillating eyes on the girl; 'this is the end of our lives; for you
the river--for me the hangman.'

'God help me,' she moaned, piteously; 'what else is left to me but the
river?'

'Hope,' he said, in a low voice; 'you are young; you are beautiful; you
can yet enjoy life; but,' in a deliberate cruel manner, 'you will not,
for the river claims you as its victim.'

Something in his voice fills her with fear, and looking up she reads
death in his face, and sinking on her knees she holds out her helpless
hands with a pitying cry for life.

'Strange,' observed M. Vandeloup, with a touch of his old airy manner;
'you come to commit suicide and are not afraid; I wish to save you the
trouble, and you are, my dear--you are illogical.'

'No! no!' she mutters, twisting her hands together, 'I do not want to
die; why do you wish to kill me?' lifting her wan face to his.

He bent down, and caught her wrist fiercely.

'You ask me that?' he said, in a voice of concentrated passion, 'you
who, with your long tongue, have put the hangman's rope round my throat;
but for you, I would, by this time, have been on my way to America,
where freedom and wealth awaits me. I have worked hard, and committed
crimes for money, and now, when I should enjoy it, you, with your
feminine devilry, have dragged me back to the depths.'

'I did not make you commit the crimes,' she said, piteously.

'Bah!' with a scoffing laugh, 'who said you did? I take my own sins on
my own shoulders; but you did worse; you betrayed me. Yes; there is a
warrant out for my arrest, for the murder of that accursed Pierre. I
have eluded the clever Melbourne police so far, but I have lived the
life of a dog. I dare not even ask for food, lest I betray myself. I am
starving! I tell you, starving! you harlot! and it is your work.'

He flung her violently to the ground, and she lay there, a huddled heap
of clothing, while, with wild gesticulations, he went on.

'But I will not hang,' he said, fiercely; 'Octave Braulard, who escaped
the guillotine, will not perish by a rope. No; I have found a boat
going to South America, and to-morrow I go on board of her, to sail to
Valparaiso; but before I go I settle with you.'

She sprang suddenly to her feet with a look of hate in her eyes.

'You villain!' she said, through her clenched teeth, 'you ruined my
life, but you shall not murder me!'

He caught her wrist again, but he was weak for want of food, and she
easily wrenched it away.

'Stand back!' she cried, retreating a little.

'You think to escape me,' he almost shrieked, all his smooth cynical
mask falling off; 'no, you will not; I will throw you into the river. I
will see you sink to your death. You will cry for help. No one will hear
you but God and myself. Both of us are merciless. You will die like a
rat in a hole, and that face you are so proud of will be buried in the
mud of the river. You devil! your time has come to die.'

He hissed out the last word in a low, sibilant manner, then sprang
towards her to execute his purpose. They were both standing on the verge
of the steps, and instinctively Kitty put out her hands to keep him
off. She struck him on the chest, and then his foot slipped on the green
slime which covered the steps, and with a cry of baffled rage he fell
backward into the dull waters, with a heavy splash. The swift current
gripped him, and before Kitty could utter a sound, she could see him
rising out in midstream, and being carried rapidly away. He threw up his
hands with a hoarse cry for help, but, weakened by famine, he could do
nothing for himself, and sank for the second time. Again he rose, and
the current swept him near shore, almost within reach of a fallen tree.
He made a desperate effort to grasp it, but the current, mocking his
puny efforts, bore him away once again in its giant embrace, and with a
wild shriek on God he sank to rise no more.

The woman on the bank, with white face and staring eyes, saw the fate
which he had meant for her meted out to him, and when she saw him sink
for the last time, she covered her face with her hand and fled rapidly
away into the shadowy night.

The sun is setting in a sea of blood, and all the west is lurid with
crimson and barred by long black clouds. A heavy cloud of smoke shot
with fiery red hangs over the city, and the din of many workings
sound through the air. Down on the river the ships are floating on the
blood-stained waters, and all their masts stand up like a forest of
bare trees against the clear sky. And the river sweeps on red and
angry-looking under the sunset, with the rank grass and vegetation on
its shelving banks. Rats are scampering along among the wet stones, and
then a vagrant dog poking about amid some garbage howls dismally. What
is that black speck on the crimson waters? The trunk of a tree perhaps;
no, it is a body, with white face and tangled auburn hair; it is
floating down with the current. People are passing to and fro on the
bridge, the clock strikes in the town hall, and the dead body
drifts slowly down the red stream far into the shadows of the coming
night--under the bridge, across which the crowd is hurrying, bent on
pleasure and business, past the tall warehouses where rich merchants are
counting their gains, under the shadow of the big steamers with their
tall masts and smoky funnels. Now it is caught in the reeds at the side
of the stream; no, the current carries it out again, and so down the
foul river, with the hum of the city on each side and the red sky above,
drifts the dead body on its way to the sea. The red dies out of the sky,
the veil of night descends, and under the cold starlight--cold and cruel
as his own nature--that which was once Gaston Vandeloup floats away into
the still shadows.

FINIS





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+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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