Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

Chapter VII

The Opulence of Madame Midas

A wealthy man does not know the meaning of the word friendship. He is not competent to judge, for his wealth precludes him giving a proper opinion. Smug-faced philanthropists can preach comfortable doctrines in pleasant rooms with well-spread tables and good clothing; they can talk about human nature being unjustly accused, and of the kindly impulses and good thoughts in everyone’s breasts. Pshaw! anyone can preach thus from an altitude of a few thousands a year, but let these same self-complacent kind-hearted gentlemen descend in the social scale — let them look twice at a penny before spending it — let them face persistent landladies, exorbitant landlords, or the bitter poverty of the streets, and they will not talk so glibly of human nature and its inherent kindness. No; human nature is a sort of fetish which is credited with a great many amiable qualities it never possesses, and though there are exceptions to the general rule, Balzac’s aphorism on mankind that ‘Nature works by self-interest,’ still holds good today.

Madame Midas, however, had experienced poverty and the coldness of friends, so was completely disillusionised as to the disinterested motives of the people who now came flocking around her. She was very wealthy, and determined to stop in Melbourne for a year, and then go home to Europe, so to this end she took a house at St Kilda, which had been formerly occupied by Mark Frettlby, the millionaire, who had been mixed up in the famous hansom cab murder nearly eighteen months before. His daughter, Mrs Fitzgerald, was in Ireland with her husband, and had given instructions to her agents to let the house furnished as it stood, but such a large rent was demanded, that no one felt inclined to give it till Mrs Villiers appeared on the scene. The house suited her, as she did not want to furnish one of her own, seeing she was only going to stop a year, so she saw Thinton and Tarbet, who had the letting of the place, and took it for a year. The windows were flung open, the furniture brushed and renovated, and the solitary charwoman who had been ruler in the lonely rooms so long, was dismissed, and her place taken by a whole retinue of servants. Madame Midas intended to live in style, so went to work over the setting up of her establishment in such an extravagant manner that Archie remonstrated. She took his interference in a good humoured way, but still arranged things as she intended; and when her house was ready, waited for her friends to call on her, and prepared to amuse herself with the comedy of human life. She had not long to wait, for a perfect deluge of affectionate people rolled down upon her. Many remembered her — oh, quite well — when she was the beautiful Miss Curtis; and then her husband — that dreadful Villiers — they hoped he was dead — squandering her fortune as he had done — they had always been sorry for her, and now she was rich — that lovely Pactolus — indeed, she deserved it all — she would marry, of course — oh, but indeed, she must. And so the comedy went on, and all the actors flirted, and ogled, and nodded, and bowed, till Madame Midas was quite sick of the falseness and frivolity of the whole thing. She knew these people, with their simpering and smiling, would visit her and eat her dinners and drink her wines, and then go away and abuse her thoroughly. But then Madame Midas never expected anything else, so she received them with smiles, saw through all their little ways, and when she had amused herself sufficiently with their antics, she let them go.

Vandeloup called on Madame Midas the day after she arrived, and Mrs Villiers was delighted to see him. Having an object in view, of course Gaston made himself as charming as possible, and assisted Madame to arrange her house, told her about the people who called on her, and made cynical remarks about them, all of which amused Madame Midas mightily. She grew weary of the inane gabble and narrow understandings of people, and it was quite a relief for her to turn to Vandeloup, with his keen tongue and clever brains. Gaston was not a charitable talker — few really clever talkers are — but he saw through everyone with the uttermost ease and summed them up in a sharp incisive way, which had at least the merit of being clever. Madame Midas liked to hear him talk, and seeing what humbugs the people who surrounded her were, and how well she knew their motives in courting her for her wealth, it is not to be wondered at that she should have been amused at having all their little weaknesses laid bare and classified by such a master of satire as Vandeloup. So they sat and watched the comedy and the unconscious actors playing their parts, and felt that the air was filled with heavy sensuous perfume, and the lights were garish, and that there was wanting entirely that keen cool atmosphere which Mallock calls ‘the ozone of respectability’.

Vandeloup had prospered in his little venture in the mining market, for, true to the prediction of Mr Barraclough — who, by the way, was very much astonished at the sudden demand for shares by Polglaze, and vainly pumped that reticent individual to find out what he was up to — the Magpie Reef shares ran up rapidly. A telegram was published from the manager stating a rich reef had been struck. Specimens of the very richest kind were displayed in Melbourne, and the confiding public suddenly woke to the fact that a golden tide was flowing past their doors. They rushed the share market, and in two weeks the Magpie Reef shares ran from four shillings to as many pounds. Vandeloup intended to sell at one pound, but when he saw the rapid rise and heard everyone talking about this Reef, which was to be a second Long Tunnel, he held his shares till they touched four pounds, then, quite satisfied with his profit, he sold out at once and pocketed nearly ten thousand pounds, so that he was provided for the rest of his life. The shares ran up still higher, to four pounds ten shillings, then dropped to three, in consequence of certain rumours that the pocket of gold was worked out. Then another rich lead was struck, and they ran up again to five pounds, and afterwards sank to two pounds, which gradually became their regular price in the market. That Barraclough and his friend did well was sufficiently proved by the former taking a trip to Europe, while his friend bought a station and set up as a squatter. They, however, never knew how cleverly M. Vandeloup had turned their conversation to his advantage, and that young gentleman, now that he had made a decent sum, determined to touch gold mining no more, and, unlike many people, he kept his word.

Now that he was a man of means, Vandeloup half decided to go to America, as a larger field for a gentleman of his brilliant qualities, but the arrival of Madame Midas in Melbourne made him alter his mind. Her husband was no doubt dead, so Gaston thought that as soon as she had settled down he would begin to pay his court to her, and without doubt would be accepted, for this confident young man never for a moment dreamed of failure. Meanwhile he sent all Kitty’s wardrobe after her as she went with the Wopples family, and the poor girl, taking this as a mark of renewed affection, wrote him a very tearful little note, which M. Vandeloup threw into the fire. Then he looked about and ultimately got a very handsome suite of rooms in Clarendon Street, East Melbourne. He furnished these richly, and having invested his money in good securities, prepared to enjoy himself.

Kitty, meanwhile, had become a great favourite with the Wopples family, and they made a wonderful pet of her. Of course, being in Rome, she did as the Romans did, and went on the stage as Miss Kathleen Wopples, being endowed with the family name for dramatic reasons. The family were now on tour among the small towns of Victoria, and seemed to be well-known, as each member got a reception when he or she appeared on the stage. Mr Theodore Wopples used to send his agent ahead to engage the theatre — or more often a hall — bill the town, and publish sensational little notices in the local papers. Then when the family arrived Mr Wopples, who was really a gentleman and well-educated, called on all the principal people of the town and so impressed them with the high class character of the entertainment that he never failed to secure their patronage. He also had a number of artful little schemes which he called ‘wheezes’, the most successful of these being a lecture on The Religious Teaching of Shakespeare’, which he invariably delivered on a Sunday afternoon in the theatre of any town he happened to be in, and not infrequently when requested occupied the pulpit and preached capital sermons. By these means Mr Wopples kept up the reputation of the family, and the upper classes of all the towns invariably supported the show, while the lower classes came as a matter of course. Mr Wopples, however, was equally as clever in providing a bill of fare as in inducing the public to come to the theatre, and the adaptability of the family was really wonderful. One night they would play farcical comedy; then Hamlet, reduced to four acts by Mr Wopples, would follow on the second night; the next night burlesque would reign supreme; and when the curtain arose on the fourth night Mr Wopples and the star artistes would be acting melodrama, and throw one another off bridges and do strong starvation business with ragged clothes amid paper snowstorms.

Kitty turned out to be a perfect treasure, as her pretty face and charming voice soon made her a favourite, and when in burlesque she played Princess to Fanny Wopples’ Prince, there was sure to be a crowded house and lots of applause. Kitty’s voice was clear and sweet as a lark’s, and her execution something wonderful, so Mr Wopples christened her the Australian Nightingale, and caused her to be so advertised in the papers. Moreover, her dainty appearance, and a certain dash and abandon she had with her, carried the audience irresistibly away, and had Fanny Wopples not been a really good girl, she would have been jealous of the success achieved by the new-comer. She, however, taught Kitty to dance breakdowns, and at Warrnambool they had a benefit, when ‘Faust, M.D.’ was produced, and Fanny sang her great success, ‘I’ve just had a row with mamma’, and Kitty sang the jewel song from ‘Faust’ in a manner worthy of Neilson, as the local critic — who had never heard Neilson — said the next day. Altogether, Kitty fully repaid the good action of Mr Wopples by making his tour a wonderful success, and the family returned to Melbourne in high glee with full pockets.

‘Next year,’ said Mr Wopples, at a supper which they had to celebrate the success of their tour, ‘we’ll have a theatre in Melbourne, and I’ll make it the favourite house of the city, see if I don’t.’

It seemed, therefore, as though Kitty had found her vocation, and would develop into an operatic star, but fate intervened, and Miss Marchurst retired from the stage, which she had adorned so much. This was due to Madame Midas, who, driving down Collins Street one day, saw Kitty at the corner walking with Fanny Wopples. She immediately stopped her carriage, and alighting therefrom, went straight up to the girl, who, turning and seeing her for the first time, grew deadly pale.

‘Kitty, my dear,’ said Madame, gravely, ‘I have been looking for you vainly for a year — but I have found you at last.’

Kitty’s breast was full of conflicting emotions; she thought that Madame knew all about her intimacy with Vandeloup, and that she would speak severely to her. Mrs Villiers’ next words, however, reassured her.

‘You left Ballarat to go on the stage, did you not?’ she said kindly, looking at the girl; ‘why did you not come to me? — you knew I was always your friend.’

‘Yes, Madame,’ said Kitty, putting out her hand and averting her head, ‘I would have come to you, but I thought you would stop me from going.’

‘My dear child,’ replied Madame, ‘I thought you knew me better than that; what theatre are you at?’

‘She’s with us,’ said Miss Fanny, who had been staring at this grave, handsomely-dressed lady who had alighted from such a swell carriage; ‘we are the Wopples Family.’

‘Ah!’ said Mrs Villiers, thinking, ‘I remember, you were up at Ballarat last year. Well, Kitty, will you and your friend drive down to St Kilda with me, and I’ll show you my new house?’

Kitty would have refused, for she was afraid Madame Midas would perhaps send her back to her father, but the appealing looks of Fanny Wopples, who had never ridden in a carriage in her life, and was dying to do so, decided her to accept. So they stepped into the carriage, and Mrs Villiers told the coachman to drive home.

As they drove along, Mrs Villiers delicately refrained from asking Kitty any questions about her flight, seeing that a stranger was present, but determined to find out all about it when she got her alone down at St Kilda.

Kitty, on her part, was thinking how to baffle Madame’s inquiries. She knew she would be questioned closely by her, and resolved not to tell more than she could help, as she, curiously enough — considering how he had treated her — wished to shield Vandeloup. But she still cherished a tender feeling for the man she loved, and had Vandeloup asked her to go back and live with him, would, no doubt, have consented. The fact was, the girl’s nature was becoming slightly demoralised, and the Kitty who sat looking at Madame Midas now — though her face was as pretty, and her eyes as pure as ever — was not the same innocent Kitty that had visited the Pactolus, for she had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and was already cultured in worldly wisdom. Madame, of course, believed that Kitty had gone from Ballarat straight on to the stage, and never thought for a moment that for a whole year she had been Vandeloup’s mistress, so when Kitty found this out — as she very soon did — she took the cue at once, and asserted positively to Madame that she had been on the stage for eighteen months.

‘But how is it,’ asked Madame, who believed her fully, ‘that I could not find you?’

‘Because I was up the country all the time,’ replied Kitty, quickly, ‘and of course did not act under my real name.’

‘You would not like to go back to your father, I suppose,’ suggested Madame.

Kitty made a gesture of dissent.

‘No,’ she answered, determinedly; ‘I was tired of my father and his religion; I’m on the stage now, and I mean to stick to it.’

‘Kitty! Kitty!’ said Madame, sadly, ‘you little know the temptations —’

‘Oh! yes, I do,’ interrupted Kitty, impatiently; ‘I’ve been nearly two years on the stage, and I have not seen any great wickedness — besides, I’m always with Mrs Wopples.’

‘Then you still mean to be an actress?’ asked Madame.

‘Yes,’ replied Kitty, in a firm voice; ‘if I went back to my father, I’d go mad leading that dull life.’

‘But why not stay with me, my dear?’ said Mrs Villiers, looking at her; ‘I am a lonely woman, as you know, and if you come to me, I will treat you as a daughter.’

‘Ah! how good you are,’ cried the girl in a revulsion of feeling, falling on her friend’s neck; ‘but indeed I cannot leave the stage — I’m too fond of it.’

Madame sighed, and gave up the argument for a time, then showed the two girls all over the house, and after they had dinner with her, she sent them back to town in her carriage, with strict injunctions to Kitty to come down next day and bring Mr Wopples with her. When the two girls reached the hotel where the family was staying, Fanny gave her father a glowing account of the opulence of Madame Midas, and Mr Wopples was greatly interested in the whole affair. He was grave, however, when Kitty spoke to him privately of what Madame had said to her, and asked her if she would not like to accept Mrs Villiers’ offer. Kitty, however, said she would remain on the stage, and as Wopples was to see Madame Midas next day, made him promise he would say nothing about having found her on the streets, or of her living with a lover. Wopples, who thoroughly understood the girl’s desire to hide her shame from her friends, agreed to this, so Kitty went to bed confident that she had saved Vandeloup’s name from being dragged into the affair.

Wopples saw Madame next day, and a long talk ensued, which ended in Kitty agreeing to stay six months with Mrs Villiers, and then, if she still wished to continue on the stage, she was to go to Mr Wopples. On the other hand, in consideration of Wopples losing the services of Kitty, Madame promised that next year she would give him sufficient money to start a theatre in Melbourne. So both parted mutually satisfied. Kitty made presents to all the family, who were very sorry to part with her, and then took up her abode with Mrs Villiers, as a kind of adopted daughter, and was quite prepared to play her part in the comedy of fashion.

So Madame Midas had been near the truth, yet never discovered it, and sent a letter to Vandeloup asking him to come to dinner and meet an old friend, little thinking how old and intimate a friend Kitty was to the young man.

It was, as Mr Wopples would have said, a highly dramatic situation, but, alas, that the confiding nature of Madame Midas should thus have been betrayed, not only by Vandeloup, but by Kitty herself — the very girl whom, out of womanly compassion, she took to her breast.

And yet the world talks about the inherent goodness of human nature.

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