Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

Chapter II

Disenchantment

It is said that ‘creaking doors hang the longest,’ and Mrs Pulchop, of Carthage Cottage, Richmond, was an excellent illustration of the truth of this saying. Thin, pale, with light bleached-looking hair, and eyebrows and eyelashes to match, she looked so shadowy and unsubstantial, than an impression was conveyed to the onlooker that a breath might blow her away. She was often heard to declare, when anything extra-ordinary happened, that one might ‘knock her down with a feather’, which, as a matter of fact, was by no means a stretch of fancy, provided the feather was a strong one and Mrs Pulchop was taken unawares. She was continually alluding to her ‘constitootion’, as if she had an interest in politics, but in reality she was referring to her state of health, which was invariably bad. According to her own showing, there was not a single disease under the sun with which she had not been afflicted, and she could have written a whole book on the subject of medicine, and put herself in, in every instance, as an illustrative case.

Mr Pulchop had long since departed this life, being considerably assisted in his exit from this wicked world by the quantity of patent medicines his wife compelled him to take to cure him, which unfortunately, however, had the opposite effect.

Mrs Pulchop said he had been a handsome man, but according to the portrait she had of him he resembled a bull-dog more than anything else in nature. The young Pulchops, of which there were two, both of the female sex, took after their father in appearance and their mother in temperament, and from the time they could talk and crawl knew as much about drops, poultices, bandages, and draughts as many a hospital nurse of mature age.

One day Vandeloup sent a telegram to Kitty saying he would be home to dinner, and as he always required something extra in the way of cooking, Kitty went to interview Mrs Pulchop on the subject. She found that lady wrapped up in a heavy shawl, turning herself into a tea-kettle by drinking hot water, the idea being, as she assured Kitty, to rouse up her liver. Miss Topsy Pulchop was tying a bandage round her face, as she felt a toothache coming on, while Miss Anna Pulchop was unfortunately quite well, and her occupation being gone, was seated disconsolately at the window trying to imagine she felt pains in her back.

‘Ah!’ groaned Mrs Pulchop, in a squeaky voice, sipping her hot water; ‘you don’t know, my dear, what it is to be aworrited by your liver — tortures and inquisitions ain’t in it, my love.’

Kitty said she was very sorry, and asked her if nothing would relieve her sufferings, but Mrs Pulchop shook her head triumphantly.

‘My sweet young thing,’ said the patient, with great gusto, ‘I’ve tried everything under the sun to make it right, but they ain’t no good; it’s always expanding and a contracting of itself unbeknown to me, and throwing the bile into the stomach, which ain’t its proper place.’

‘It does sound rather nasty,’ assented Kitty; ‘and Topsy seems to be ill, too.’

‘Toothache,’ growled Topsy, who had a deep, bass voice, and being modelled on the canine lines of her late lamented father, the growl suited her admirably. ‘I had two out last week, and now this one’s started.’

‘Try a roasted fig, Topsy dear,’ suggested her mother, who, now, having finished her hot water, looked longingly at the kettle for more.

‘Toothache,’ growled Topsy, in reply, ‘not gumboil;’ the remedy suggested by Mrs Pulchop being for the latter of these ills.

‘You are quite well, at any rate,’ said Kitty to Anna, cheerfully.

Anna, however, declined to be considered in good health. ‘I fancy my back is going to ache,’ she said, darkly placing her hand in the small of it. ‘I’ll have to put a linseed poultice on it tonight, to draw the cold out.’

Then she groaned dismally, and her mother and sister, hearing the familiar sound, also groaned, so there was quite a chorus, and Kitty felt inclined to groan also, out of sympathy.

‘M. Vandeloup is coming to dinner tonight,’ she said, timidly, to Mrs Pulchop.

‘And a wonder it is, my sweet angel,’ said that lady, indignantly, rising and glancing at the pretty girl, now so pale and sad-looking, ‘it’s once in a blue moon as he comes ‘ome, a — leaving you to mope at home like a broken-hearted kitten in a coal box. Ah, if he only had a liver, that would teach him manners.’

Groans of assent from the Misses Pulchops, who both had livers and were always fighting with them.

‘And what, my neglected cherub,’ asked Mrs Pulchop, going to a looking-glass which always hung in the kitchen, for the three to examine their tongues in, ‘what shall I give you for dinner?’

Kitty suggested a fowl, macaroni cheese, and fruit for dessert, which bill of fare had such an effect on the family that they all groaned in unison.

‘Macaroni cheese,’ growled Topsy, speaking from the very depth of the cork soles she wore to keep her feet dry; ‘there’s nothing more bilious. I couldn’t look at it.’

‘Ah,’ observed Mrs Pulchop, ‘you’re only a weak gal, and men is that obstinate they’d swaller bricks like ostriges sooner nor give in as it hurt ’em. You shall ‘ave a nice dinner, Mrs Vanloops, tho’ I can’t deny but what it ull be bilious.’

Thus warned, Kitty retired into her own room and made herself nice for Gaston to look on when he came.

Poor thing, it was so rarely now that he came home to dinner, that a visit from him was regarded by her in the light of a treat. She dressed herself in a pretty white dress and tied a blue sash round her waist, so that she might look the same to him as when he first saw her. But her face was now worn and white, and as she looked at her pallor in the glass she wished she had some rouge to bring a touch of colour to her cheeks. She tried to smile in her own merry way at the wan reflection she beheld, but the effort was a failure, and she burst into tears.

At six o’clock everything was ready for dinner, and having seen that all was in good order, Kitty walked outside to watch for Gaston.

There was a faint, warm, light outside, and the sky was of a pale opaline tint, while the breeze blowing across the garden brought the perfume of the flowers to her, putting Kitty in mind of Mrs Villiers’ garden at Ballarat. Oh, those innocent days! would they never come again? Alas! she knew that they would not — the subtle feeling of youth had left her for ever; and this girl, leaning up against the house with her golden head resting on her arm, knew that the change had come over her which turns all from youth to age.

Suddenly she heard the rattle of wheels, and rousing herself from her reverie, she saw a hansom cab at the gate, and M. Vandeloup standing on the pavement paying the driver. She also heard her lover tell the cabman to call for him at eight o’clock, and her heart sank within her as she thought that he would be gone again in two hours. The cab drove off, and she stood cold and silent on the verandah waiting for Gaston, who sauntered slowly up the walk with one hand in the pocket of his trousers. He was in evening dress, and the night being warm he did not wear an overcoat, so looked tall and slim in his dark clothes as he came up the path swinging his cane gaily to and fro.

‘Well, Bebe,’ he said, brightly, as he bent down and kissed her, ‘here I am, you see; I hope you’ve got a nice dinner for me?’

‘Oh, yes,’ answered Kitty, trying to smile, and walking before him into the house; ‘I told Mrs Pulchop, and she has made special preparations.’

‘How is that walking hospital?’ asked Vandeloup, carelessly taking off his hat; ‘I suppose she is ill as usual.’

‘So she says,’ replied Kitty, with a laugh, as he put his arm in hers and walked into the room; ‘she is always ill.’

‘Why, Bebe, how charming you look tonight,’ said Vandeloup, holding her at arm’s length; ‘quite like your old self.’

And indeed she looked very pretty, for the excitement of seeing him had brightened her eyes and flushed her cheeks, and standing in the warm light of the lamp, with her golden hair floating round her head, she looked like a lovely picture.

‘You are not going away very soon?’ she whispered to Gaston, coming close to him, and putting her hand on his shoulder; ‘I see so little of you now.’

‘My dear child, I can’t help it,’ he said, carelessly removing her hand and walking over to the dinner table; ‘I have an engagement in town tonight.’

‘Ah, you no longer care for me,’ said Kitty, with a stifled sob.

Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

‘If you are going to make a scene,’ he said, coldly, ‘please postpone it. I don’t want my appetite taken away; would you kindly see if the dinner is ready?’

Kitty dried her eyes and rang the bell, upon which Mrs Pulchop glided into the room, still wrapped in her heavy shawl.

‘It ain’t quite ready yet, sir,’ she said, in answer to Gaston’s question; ‘Topsy ‘aving been bad with the toothache, which you can’t expect people to cook dinners as is ill!’

‘Why don’t you send her to the hospital?’ said Vandeloup, with a yawn, looking at his watch.

‘Never,’ retorted Mrs Pulchop, in a decisively shrill voice; ‘their medicines ain’t pure, and they leaves you at the mercy of doctors to be practised on like a pianer. Topsy may go to the cemetery like her poor dear father, but never to an inquisition of a hospital;’ and with this Mrs Pulchop faded out of the room, for her peculiar mode of egress could hardly be called walking out.

At last dinner made its appearance, and Kitty recovering her spirits, they had a very pleasant meal together, and then Gaston sat over his coffee with a cigarette, talking to Kitty.

He never was without a cigarette in his mouth, and his fingers were all stained a yellowish brown by the nicotine. Kitty lay back in a big arm-chair listening to his idle talk and admiring him as he sat at the dinner table.

‘Can’t you stay tonight?’ she said, looking imploringly at him.

Vandeloup shook his head gently.

‘I have an engagement, as I told you before,’ he said, lazily; ‘besides, evenings at home are so dreary.’

‘I will be here,’ said Kitty, reproachfully.

‘That will, of course, make a difference,’ answered Gaston, with a faint sneer; ‘but you know,’ shrugging his shoulders, ‘I do not cultivate the domestic virtues.’

‘What will you do when we are married?’ said Kitty, with an uneasy laugh.

‘Enough for the day is the evil thereof,’ replied M. Vandeloup, with a gay smile.

‘What do you mean?’ asked the girl, with a sudden start.

Vandeloup arose from his seat, and lighting another cigarette he lounged over to the fireplace, and leaned against the mantelpiece with his hands in his pockets.

‘I mean that when we are married it will be time enough to talk about such things,’ he answered, looking at her through his eyelashes.

‘Then we will talk about them very shortly,’ said Kitty, with an angry laugh, as her hands clenched the arms of the chair tightly; ‘for the year is nearly up, and you promised to marry me at the end of it.’

‘How many things do we intend to do that are never carried out?’ said Gaston, gently. ‘Do you mean that you will break your promise?’ she asked, with a scared face.

Vandeloup removed the cigarette from his mouth, and, leaning one elbow on the mantelpiece, looked at her with a smile.

‘My dear,’ he said, quietly, ‘things are not going well with me at present, and I want money badly.’

‘Well?’ asked Kitty in a whisper, her heart beating loudly.

‘You are not rich,’ said her lover, ‘so why should we two paupers get married, only to plunge ourselves into misery?’

‘Then you refuse to marry me?’ she said, rising to her feet.

He bowed his head gently.

‘At present, yes,’ he answered, and replaced the cigarette between his lips.

Kitty stood for a moment as if turned to stone, and then throwing up her hands with a gesture of despair, fell back into the chair, and burst into a flood of tears. Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders in a resigned sort of manner, and glanced at his watch to see when it would be time for him to go. Meanwhile he smoked quietly on, and Kitty, after sobbing for some time, dried her eyes, and sat up in the chair again.

‘How long is this going to last?’ she asked, in a hard voice.

‘Till I get rich!’

‘That may be a long time?’

‘It may.’

‘Perhaps never?’

‘Perhaps!’

‘And then I will never be your wife?’

‘Unfortunately, no.’

‘You coward!’ burst forth Kitty, rising from her seat, and crossing over to him; ‘you made me leave my home with your false promises, and now you refuse to make me the only reparation that is in your power.’

‘Circumstances are against any virtuous intentions I may entertain,’ retorted Vandeloup, coolly.

Kitty looked at him for a moment, then ran over to a desk near the window, and took from thence a small bottle of white glass with two red bands round it. She let the lid of the desk fall with a bang, then crossed to Vandeloup, holding the bottle up before him.

‘Do you know what this is?’ she asked, in a harsh voice.

‘The poison I made in Ballarat,’ he answered, coolly, blowing a wreath of smoke; ‘how did you get hold of it?’

‘I found it in your private desk,’ she said, coldly.

‘That was wrong, my dear,’ he answered, gently, ‘you should never betray confidences — I left the desk in your charge, and it should have been sacred to you.’

‘Out of your own mouth are you condemned,’ said the girl, quickly; ‘you have betrayed my confidence and ruined me, so if you do not fix a day for our marriage, I swear I will drink this and die at your feet.’

‘How melodramatic you are, Bebe,’ said Vandeloup, coolly; ‘you put me in mind of Croisette in “Le Sphinx”.’

‘You don’t believe I will do it.’

‘No! I do not.’

‘Then see.’ She took the stopper out of the bottle and held it to her lips. Vandeloup did not stir, but, still smoking, stood looking at her with a smile. His utter callousness was too much for her, and replacing the stopper again, she slipped the bottle into her pocket and let her hands fall idly by her side.

‘I thought you would not do it,’ replied Gaston, smoothly, looking at his watch; ‘you must really excuse me, I hear the cab wheels outside.’

Kitty, however, placed herself in front of him as he moved towards the door.

‘Listen to me,’ she said, in a harsh voice, with white face and flaming eyes; ‘to-night I leave this house for ever.’

He bowed his head.

‘As it pleases you,’ he replied, simply.

‘My God!’ she cried, ‘have you no love for me now?’

‘No,’ he answered, coldly and brutally, ‘I am tired of you.’

She fell on her knees and clutched his hand.

‘Dear Gaston! dear Gaston!’ she cried, covering it with kisses, ‘think how young I am, how my life is ruined, and by you. I gave up everything for your sake — home, father, and friends — you will not cast me off like this after all I have sacrificed for you? Oh, for God’s sake, speak — speak!’

‘My dear,’ said Vandeloup, gravely, looking down at the kneeling figure with the streaming eyes and clenched hands, ‘as long as you choose to stay here I will be your friend — I cannot afford to marry you, but while you are with me our lives will be as they have been; good-bye at present,’ touching her forehead coldly with his lips, ‘I will call to-morrow afternoon to see how you are, and I trust this will be the last of such scenes.’

He drew his hand away from hers, and she sat on the floor dull and silent, with her eyes fixed on the ground and an aching in her heart. Vandeloup went into the hall, put on his hat, then lighting another cigarette and taking his stick, walked gaily out of the house, humming an air from ‘La Belle Helene’. The cab was waiting for him at the door, and telling the man to drive to the Bachelors’ Club, he entered the cab and rattled away down the street without a thought for the broken-hearted woman he left behind.

Kitty sat on the floor with her folded hands lying carelessly on her lap and her eyes staring idly at the carpet. This, then, was the end of all her hopes and joys — she was cast aside carelessly by this man now that he wearied of her. Love’s young dream had been sweet indeed; but, ah! how bitter was the awakening. Her castles in the air had all melted into clouds, and here in the very flower of her youth she felt that her life was ruined, and she was as one wandering in a sterile waste, with a black and starless sky overhead. She clasped her hands with a sensation of pain, and a rose at her breast fell down withered and dead. She took it up with listless fingers, and with the quiver of her hand the leaves fell off and were scattered over her white dress in a pink shower. It was an allegory of her life, she thought. Once it had been as fresh and full of fragrance as this dead rose; then it had withered, and now she saw all her hopes and beliefs falling off one by one like the faded petals. Ah, there is no despair like that of youth; and Kitty, sitting on the floor with hot dry eyes and a pain in her heart, felt that the sun of her life had set for ever.

**

So still the night was. No moon as yet, but an innumerable blaze of stars set like diamonds in the dark blue sky. A smoky yellowish haze hung over the city, but down in the garden amid the flowers all was cool and fragrant. The house was quite dark, and a tall mulberry tree on one side of it was black against the clear sky. Suddenly the door opened, and a figure came out and closed the door softly after it. Down the path it came, and standing in the middle of the garden, raised a white tear-stained face to the dark sky. A dog barked in the distance, and then a fresh cold breeze came sweeping through the trees and stirring the still perfumes of the flowers. The figure threw its hands out towards the house with a gesture of despair, then gliding down the path it went out of the gate and stole quietly down the lonely street.

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