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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.'
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