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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?'
'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?
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