Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

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.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42