Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

Chapter II

Slivers

Everyone has heard of the oldest inhabitant — that wonderful piece of antiquity, with white hair, garrulous tongue, and cast-iron memory — who was born with the present century — very often before it — and remembers George III, the Battle of Waterloo, and the invention of the steam-engine. But in Australia, the oldest inhabitant is localized, and rechristened an early settler. He remembers Melbourne before Melbourne was; he distinctly recollects sailing up the Yarra Yarra with Batman, and talks wildly about the then crystalline purity of its waters — an assertion which we of to-day feel is open to considerable doubt. His wealth is unbounded, his memory marvellous, and his acquaintances of a somewhat mixed character, comprising as they do a series of persons ranging from a member of Parliament down to a larrikin.

Ballarat, no doubt, possesses many of these precious pieces of antiquity hidden in obscure corners, but one especially was known, not only in the Golden City, but throughout Victoria. His name was Slivers — plain Slivers, as he said himself — and, from a physical point of view, he certainly spoke the truth. What his Christian name was no one ever knew; he called himself Slivers, and so did everyone else, without even an Esquire or a Mister to it — neither a head nor a tail to add dignity to the name.

Slivers was as well known in Sturt Street and at ‘The Corner’ as the town clock, and his tongue very much resembled that timepiece, inasmuch as it was always going. He was a very early settler; in fact, so remarkably early that it was currently reported the first white men who came to Ballarat found Slivers had already taken up his abode there, and lived in friendly relations with the local blacks. He had achieved this amicable relationship by the trifling loss of a leg, an arm, and an eye, all of which portions of his body were taken off the right side, and consequently gave him rather a lop-sided appearance. But what was left of Slivers possessed an abundant vitality, and it seemed probable he would go on living in the same damaged condition for the next twenty years.

The Ballarat folk were fond of pointing him out as a specimen of the healthy climate, but this was rather a flight of fancy, as Slivers was one of those exasperating individuals who, if they lived in a swamp or a desert, would still continue to feel their digestions good and their lungs strong.

Slivers was reputed rich, and Arabian-Night-like stories were told of his boundless wealth, but no one ever knew the exact amount of money he had, and as Slivers never volunteered any information on the subject, no one ever did know. He was a small, wizen-looking little man, who usually wore a suit of clothes a size too large for him, wherein scandal-mongers averred his body rattled like a dried pea in a pod. His hair was white, and fringed the lower portion of his yellow little scalp in a most deceptive fashion. With his hat on Slivers looked sixty; take it off and his bald head immediately added ten years to his existence. His one eye was bright and sharp, of a greyish colour, and the loss of the other was replaced by a greasy black patch, which gave him a sinister appearance. He was cleaned shaved, and had no teeth, but notwithstanding this want, his lips gripped the stem of his long pipe in a wonderfully tenacious and obstinate manner. He carried on the business of a mining agent, and knowing all about the country and the intricacies of the mines, he was one of the cleverest speculators in Ballarat.

The office of Slivers was in Sturt Street, in a dirty, tumble-down cottage wedged between two handsome modern buildings. It was a remnant of old Ballarat which had survived the rage for new houses and highly ornamented terraces. Slivers had been offered money for that ricketty little shanty, but he declined to sell it, averring that as a snail grew to fit his house his house had grown to fit him.

So there it stood — a dingy shingle roof overgrown with moss — a quaint little porch and two numerously paned windows on each side. On top of the porch a sign-board — done by Slivers in the early days, and looking like it — bore the legend ‘Slivers, mining agent.’ The door did not shut — something was wrong with it, so it always stood ajar in a hospitable sort of manner. Entering this, a stranger would find himself in a dark low-roofed passage, with a door at the end leading to the kitchen, another on the right leading to the bedroom, and a third on the left leading to the office, where most of Slivers’ indoor life was spent. He used to stop here nearly all day doing business, with the small table before him covered with scrip, and the mantelpiece behind him covered with specimens of quartz, all labelled with the name of the place whence they came. The inkstand was dirty, the ink thick and the pens rusty; yet, in spite of all these disadvantages, Slivers managed to do well and make money. He used to recommend men to different mines round about, and whenever a manager wanted men, or new hands wanted work, they took themselves off to Slivers, and were sure to be satisfied there. Consequently, his office was nearly always full; either of people on business or casual acquaintances dropping in to have a drink — Slivers was generous in the whisky line — or to pump the old man about some new mine, a thing which no one ever managed to do. When the office was empty, Slivers would go on sorting the scrip on his table, drinking his whisky, or talking to Billy. Now Billy was about as well known in Ballarat as Slivers, and was equally as old and garrulous in his own way. He was one of those large white yellow-crested cockatoos who, in their captivity, pass their time like galley-slaves, chained by one leg. Billy, however, never submitted to the indignity of a chain — he mostly sat on Slivers’ table or on his shoulder, scratching his poll with his black claw, or chattering to Slivers in a communicative manner. People said Billy was Slivers’ evil spirit, and as a matter of fact, there was something uncanny in the wisdom of the bird. He could converse fluently on all occasions, and needed no drawing out, inasmuch as he was always ready to exhibit his powers of conversation. He was not a pious bird — belonging to Slivers, he could hardly be expected to be — and his language was redolent of Billingsgate. So Billy being so clever was quite a character in his way, and, seated on Slivers’ shoulder with his black bead of an eye watching his master writing with the rusty pen, they looked a most unholy pair.

The warm sunlight poured through the dingy windows of the office, and filled the dark room with a sort of sombre glory. The atmosphere of Slivers’ office was thick and dusty, and the sun made long beams of light through the heavy air. Slivers had pushed all the scrip and loose papers away, and was writing a letter in the little clearing caused by their removal. On the old-fashioned inkstand was a paper full of grains of gold, and on this the sunlight rested, making it glitter in the obscurity of the room. Billy, seated on Slivers’ shoulder, was astonished at this, and, inspired by a spirit of adventure, he climbed down and waddled clumsily across the table to the inkstand, where he seized a small nugget in his beak and made off with it. Slivers looked up from his writing suddenly: so, being detected, Billy stopped and looked at him, still carrying the nugget in his beak.

‘Drop it,’ said Slivers severely, in his rasping little voice. Billy pretended not to understand, and after eyeing Slivers for a moment or two resumed his journey. Slivers stretched out his hand for the ruler, whereupon Billy, becoming alive to his danger, dropped the nugget, and flew down off the table with a discordant shriek.

‘Devil! devil! devil!’ screamed this amiable bird, flopping up and down on the floor. ‘You’re a liar! You’re a liar! Pickles.’

Having delivered himself of this bad language, Billy waddled to his master’s chair, and climbing up by the aid of his claws and beak, soon established himself in his old position. Slivers, however, was not attending to him, as he was leaning back in his chair drumming in an absent sort of way with his lean fingers on the table. His cork arm hung down limply, and his one eye was fixed on a letter lying in front of him. This was a communication from the manager of the Pactolus Mine requesting Slivers to get him more hands, and Slivers’ thoughts had wandered away from the letter to the person who wrote it, and from thence to Madame Midas.

‘She’s a clever woman,’ observed Slivers, at length, in a musing sort of tone, ‘and she’s got a good thing on in that claim if she only strikes the Lead.’

‘Devil,’ said Billy once more, in a harsh voice.

‘Exactly,’ answered Slivers, ‘the Devil’s Lead. Oh, Lord! what a fool I was not to have collared that ground before she did; but that infernal McIntosh never would tell me where the place was. Never mind, I’ll be even with him yet; curse him.’

His expression of face was not pleasant as he said this, and he grasped the letter in front of him in a violent way, as if he were wishing his long fingers were round the writer’s throat. Tapping with his wooden leg on the floor, he was about to recommence his musings, when he heard a step in the passage, and the door of his office being pushed violently open, a man entered without further ceremony, and flung himself down on a chair near the window.

‘Fire!’ said Billy, on seeing this abrupt entry; ‘how’s your mother! — Ballarat and Bendigo — Bendigo and Ballarat.’

The newcomer was a man short and powerfully built, dressed in a shabby-genteel sort of way, with a massive head covered with black hair, heavy side whiskers and moustache, and a clean shaved chin, which had that blue appearance common to very dark men who shave. His mouth — that is, as much as could be seen of it under the drooping moustache — was weak and undecided, and his dark eyes so shifty and restless that they seemed unable to meet a steady gaze, but always looked at some inanimate object that would not stare them out of countenance.

‘Well, Mr Randolph Villiers,’ croaked Slivers, after contemplating his visitor for a few moments, ‘how’s business?’

‘Infernally bad,’ retorted Mr Villiers, pulling out a cigar and lighting it. ‘I’ve lost twenty pounds on those Moscow shares.’

‘More fool you,’ replied Slivers, courteously, swinging round in his chair so as to face Villiers. ‘I could have told you the mine was no good; but you will go on your own bad judgment.’

‘It’s like getting blood out of a stone to get tips from you,’ growled Villiers, with a sulky air. ‘Come now, old boy,’ in a cajoling manner, ‘tell us something good — I’m nearly stone broke, and I must live.’

‘I’m hanged if I see the necessity,’ malignantly returned Slivers, unconsciously quoting Voltaire; ‘but if you do want to get into a good thing —’

‘Yes! yes!’ said the other, eagerly bending forward.

‘Get an interest in the Pactolus,’ and the agreeable old gentleman leaned back and laughed loudly in a raucous manner at his visitor’s discomfited look.

‘You ass,’ hissed Mr Villiers, between his closed teeth; ‘you know as well as I do that my infernal wife won’t look at me.’

‘Ho, ho!’ laughed the cockatoo, raising his yellow crest in an angry manner; ‘devil take her — rather!’

‘I wish he would!’ muttered Villiers, fervently; then with an uneasy glance at Billy, who sat on the old man’s shoulder complacently ruffling his feathers, he went on: ‘I wish you’d screw that bird’s neck, Slivers; he’s too clever by half.’

Slivers paid no attention to this, but, taking Billy off his shoulder, placed him on the floor, then turned to his visitor and looked at him fixedly with his bright eye in such a penetrating manner that Villiers felt it go through him like a gimlet.

‘I hate your wife,’ said Slivers, after a pause.

‘Why the deuce should you?’ retorted Villiers, sulkily. ‘You ain’t married to her.’

‘I wish I was,’ replied Slivers with a chuckle. ‘A fine woman, my good sir! Why, if I was married to her I wouldn’t sneak away whenever I saw her. I’d go up to the Pactolus claim and there I’d stay.’

‘It’s easy enough talking,’ retorted Villiers crossly, ‘but you don’t know what a fiend she is! Why do you hate her?’

‘Because I do,’ retorted Slivers. ‘I hate her; I hate McIntosh; the whole biling of them; they’ve got the Pactolus claim, and if they find the Devil’s Lead they’ll be millionaires.’

‘Well,’ said the other, quite unmoved, ‘all Ballarat knows that much.’

‘But I might have had it!’ shrieked Slivers, getting up in an excited manner, and stumping up and down the office. ‘I knew Curtis, McIntosh and the rest were making their pile, but I couldn’t find out where; and now they’re all dead but McIntosh, and the prize has slipped through my fingers, devil take them!’

‘Devil take them,’ echoed the cockatoo, who had climbed up again on the table, and was looking complacently at his master.

‘Why don’t you ruin your wife, you fool?’ said Slivers, turning vindictively on Villiers. ‘You ain’t going to let her have all the money while you are starving, are you?’

‘How the deuce am I to do that?’ asked Villiers, sulkily, relighting his cigar.

‘Get the whip hand of her,’ snarled Slivers, viciously; ‘find out if she’s in love, and threaten to divorce her if she doesn’t go halves.’

‘There’s no chance of her having any lovers,’ retorted Villiers; ‘she’s a piece of ice.’

‘Ice melts,’ replied Slivers, quickly. ‘Wait till “Mr Right” comes along, and then she’ll begin to regret being married to you, and then —’

‘Well?’

‘You’ll have the game in your own hands,’ hissed the wicked old man, rubbing his hands. ‘Oh!’ he cried, spinning round on his wooden leg, ‘it’s a lovely idea. Wait till we meet “Mr Right”, just wait,’ and he dropped into his chair quite overcome by the state of excitement he had worked himself into.

‘If you’ve quite done with those gymnastics, my friend,’ said a soft voice near the door, ‘perhaps I may enter.’

Both the inmates of the office looked up at this, and saw that two men were standing at the half-open door — one an extremely handsome young man of about thirty, dressed in a neat suit of blue serge, and wearing a large white wide-awake hat, with a bird’s-eye handkerchief twisted round it. His companion was short and heavily built, dressed somewhat the same, but with his black hat pulled down over his eyes.

‘Come in,’ growled Slivers, angrily, when he saw his visitors. ‘What the devil do you want?’

‘Work,’ said the young man, advancing to the table. ‘We are new arrivals in the country, and were told to come to you to get work.’

‘I don’t keep a factory,’ snarled Slivers, leaning forward.

‘I don’t think I would come to you if you did,’ retorted the stranger, coolly. ‘You would not be a pleasant master either to look at or to speak to.’

Villiers laughed at this, and Slivers stared dumbfounded at being spoken to in such a manner.

‘Devil,’ broke in Billy, rapidly. ‘You’re a liar — devil.’

‘Those, I presume, are your master’s sentiments towards me,’ said the young man, bowing gravely to the bird. ‘But as soon as he recovers the use of his tongue, I trust he will tell us if we can get work or not.’

Slivers was just going to snap out a refusal, when he caught sight of McIntosh’s letter on the table, and this recalled to his mind the conversation he had with Mr Villiers. Here was a young man handsome enough to make any woman fall in love with him, and who, moreover, had a clever tongue in his head. All Slivers’ animosity revived against Madame Midas as he thought of the Devil’s Lead, and he determined to use this young man as a tool to ruin her in the eyes of the world. With these thoughts in his mind, he drew a sheet of paper towards him, and dipping the rusty pen in the thick ink, prepared to question his visitors as to what they could do, with a view to sending them out to the Pactolus claim.

‘Names?’ he asked, grasping his pen firmly in his left hand.

‘Mine,’ said the stranger, bowing, ‘is Gaston Vandeloup, my friend’s Pierre Lemaire — both French.’

Slivers scrawled this down in the series of black scratches, which did duty with him for writing.

‘Where do you come from?’ was his next question.

‘The story,’ said M. Vandeloup, with suavity, ‘is too long to repeat at present; but we came to-day from Melbourne.’

‘What kind of work can you do?’ asked Slivers, sharply.

‘Anything that turns up,’ retorted the Frenchman.

‘I was addressing your companion, sir; not you,’ snarled Slivers, turning viciously on him.

‘I have to answer for both,’ replied the young man, coolly, slipping one hand into his pocket and leaning up against the door in a negligent attitude, ‘my friend is dumb.’

‘Poor devil!’ said Slivers, harshly.

‘But,’ went on Vandeloup, sweetly, ‘his legs, arms, and eyes are all there.’

Slivers glared at this fresh piece of impertinence, but said nothing. He wrote a letter to McIntosh, recommending him to take on the two men, and handed it to Vandeloup, who received it with a bow.

‘The price of your services, Monsieur?’ he asked.

‘Five bob,’ growled Slivers, holding out his one hand.

Vandeloup pulled out two half-crowns and put them in the thin, claw-like fingers, which instantly closed on them.

‘It’s a mining place you’re going to,’ said Slivers, pocketing the money; ‘the Pactolus claim. There’s a pretty woman there. Have a drink?’

Vandeloup declined, but his companion, with a grunt, pushed past him, and filling a tumbler with the whisky, drank it off. Slivers looked ruefully at the bottle, and then hastily put it away, in case Vandeloup should change his mind and have some.

Vandeloup put on his hat and went to the door, out of which Pierre had already preceded him.

‘I trust, gentlemen,’ he said, with a graceful bow, ‘we shall meet again, and can then discuss the beauty of this lady to whom Mr Slivers alludes. I have no doubt he is a judge of beauty in others, though he is so incomplete himself.’

He went out of the door, and then Slivers sprang up and rushed to Villiers.

‘Do you know who that is?’ he asked, in an excited manner, pulling his companion to the window.

Villiers looked through the dusty panes, and saw the young Frenchman walking away, as handsome and gallant a man as he had ever seen, followed by the slouching figure of his friend.

‘Vandeloup,’ he said, turning to Slivers, who was trembling with excitement.

‘No, you fool,’ retorted the other, triumphantly. That is “Mr Right”.’

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