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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.
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.
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