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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.'
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