Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

Chapter III

Madame Midas at Home

Madame Midas was standing on the verandah of her cottage, staring far away into the distance, where she could see the tall chimney and huge mound of white earth which marked the whereabouts of the Pactolus claim. She was a tall voluptuous-looking woman of what is called a Junoesque type — decidedly plump, with firm white hands and well-formed feet. Her face was of a whitish tint, more like marble than flesh, and appeared as if modelled from the antique — with the straight Greek nose, high and smooth forehead, and full red mouth, with firmly-closed lips. She had dark and piercing eyes, with heavy arched eyebrows above them, and her hair, of a bluish-black hue, was drawn smoothly over the forehead, and coiled in thick wreaths at the top of her small, finely-formed head. Altogether a striking-looking woman, but with an absence of animation about her face, which had a calm, serene expression, effectually hiding any thoughts that might be passing in her mind, and which resembled nothing so much in its inscrutable look as the motionless calm which the old Egyptians gave to their sphinxes. She was dressed for coolness in a loose white dress, tied round her waist with a crimson scarf of Indian silk; and her beautifully modelled arms, bare to the elbow, and unadorned by any trinkets, were folded idly in front of her as she looked out at the landscape, which was mellowed and full of warmth under the bright yellow glare of the setting sun.

The cottage — for it was nothing else — stood on a slight rise immediately in front of a dark wood of tall gum-trees, and there was a long row of them on the right, forming a shelter against the winds, as if the wood had thrown a protecting arm around the cottage, and wanted to draw it closer to its warm bosom. The country was of an undulating character, divided into fields by long rows of gorse hedges, all golden with blossoms, which gave out a faint, peach-like odour. Some of these meadows were yellow with corn — some a dull red with sorrel, others left in their natural condition of bright green grass — while here and there stood up, white and ghost-like, the stumps of old trees, the last remnants of the forests, which were slowly retreating before the axe of the settler. These fields, which had rather a harlequin aspect with their varied colours, all melted together in the far distance into an indescribable neutral tint, and ended in the dark haze of the bush, which grew over all the undulating hills. On the horizon, however, at intervals, a keen eye could see some tall tree standing boldly up, outlined clearly against the pale yellow of the sky. There was a white dusty road or rather a track between two rough fences, with a wide space of green grass on each side, and here and there could be seen the cattle wandering idly homeward, lingering every now and then to pull at a particularly tempting tuft of bush grass growing in the moist ditches which ran along each side of the highway. Scattered over this pastoral-looking country were huge mounds of white earth, looking like heaps of carded wool, and at the end of each of these invariably stood a tall, ugly skeleton of wood. These marked the positions of the mines — the towers contained the winding gear, while the white earth was the clay called mulloch, brought from several hundred feet below the surface. Near these mounds were rough-looking sheds with tall red chimneys, which made a pleasant spot of colour against the white of the clay. On one of these mounds, rather isolated from the others, and standing by itself in the midst of a wide green paddock, Mrs Villiers’ eyes were fixed, and she soon saw the dark figure of a man coming slowly down the white mound, along the green field and advancing slowly up the hill. When she saw him coming, without turning her head or raising her voice, she called out to someone inside,

‘Archie is coming, Selina — you had better hurry up the tea, for he will be hungry after such a long day.’

The person inside made no answer save by an extra clatter of some domestic utensils, and Madame apparently did not expect a reply, for without saying anything else she walked slowly down the garden path, and leaned lightly over the gate, waiting for the newcomer, who was indeed none other than Archibald McIntosh, the manager of the Pactolus.

He was a man of about medium height, rather thin than otherwise, with a long, narrow-looking head and boldly cut features — clean shaved save for a frill of white hair which grew on his throat up the sides of his head to his ears, and which gave him rather a peculiar appearance, as if he had his jaw bandaged up. His eyes were grey and shrewd-looking, his lips were firmly compressed — in fact, the whole appearance of his face was obstinate — the face of a man who would stick to his opinions whatever anyone else might say to the contrary. He was in a rough miner’s dress, all splashed with clay, and as he came up to the gate Madame could see he was holding something in his hand.

‘D’ye no ken what yon may be?’ he said, a smile relaxing his grim features as he held up a rather large nugget; ‘’tis the third yin this week!’

Madame Midas took the nugget from him and balanced it carefully in her hand, with a thoughtful look in her face, as if she was making a mental calculation.

‘About twenty to twenty-five ounces, I should say,’ she observed in her soft low voice; ‘the last we had was fifteen, and the one before twenty — looks promising for the gutter, doesn’t it?’

‘Well, I’ll no say but what it micht mean a deal mair,’ replied McIntosh, with characteristic Scotch caution, as he followed Madame into the house; ‘it’s no a verra bad sign, onyhow; I winna say but what we micht be near the Devil’s Lead.’

‘And if we are?’ said Madame, turning with a smile.

‘Weel, mem, ye’ll have mair siller nor ye’ll ken what to dae wi’, an’ ’tis to be hoped ye’ll no be making a fool of yersel.’

Madame laughed — she was used to McIntosh’s plain speaking, and it in no wise offended her. In fact, she preferred it very much more than being flattered, as people’s blame is always genuine, their praise rarely so. At all events she was not displeased, and looked after him with a smile in her dark eyes as he disappeared into the back kitchen to make himself decent for tea. Madame herself sat down in an arm-chair in the bow window, and watched Selina preparing the meal.

Selina Jane Sprotts, who now acted as servant to Mrs Villiers, was rather an oddity in her way. She had been Madame’s nurse, and had followed her up to Ballarat, with the determination of never leaving her. Selina was a spinster, as her hand had never been sought in marriage, and her personal appearance was certainly not very fascinating. Tall and gaunt, she was like a problem from Euclid, all angles, and the small quantity of grey hair she possessed was screwed into a hard lump at the back of her head. Her face was reddish in colour, and her mouth prim and pursed up, as if she was afraid of saying too much, which she need not have been, as she rarely spoke, and was as economical of her words as she was of everything else. She was much given to quoting proverbs, and hurled these prepared little pieces of wisdom on every side like pellets out of a pop-gun. Conversation which consists mainly of proverbs is rarely exhilarating; consequently Miss Sprotts was not troubled to talk much, either by Madame or McIntosh.

Miss Sprotts moved noiselessly about the small room, in a wonderfully dextrous manner considering her height, and, after laying the table, placed the teapot on the hob to ‘draw’, thereby disturbing a cat and a dog who were lying in front of the fire — for there was a fire in the room in spite of the heat of the day, Selina choosing to consider that the house was damp. She told Madame she knew it was damp because her bones ached, and as she was mostly bones she certainly had a good opportunity of judging.

Annoyed at being disturbed by Miss Sprotts, the dog resigned his comfortable place with a plaintive growl, but the cat, of a more irritable temperament, set up and made a sudden scratch at her hand, drawing blood therefrom.

‘Animals,’ observed Selina, grimly, ‘should keep their place;’ and she promptly gave the cat a slap on the side of the head, which sent him over to Madame’s feet, with an angry spit. Madame picked him up and soothed his ruffled feelings so successfully, that he curled himself up on her lap and went to sleep.

By-and-bye Archie, who had been making a great splashing in the back premises, came in looking clean and fresh, with a more obstinate look about his face than ever. Madame went to the tea-table and sat down, for she always had her meals with them, a fact of which they were very proud, and they always treated her with intense respect, though every now and then they were inclined to domineer. Archie, having seen that the food on the table was worth thanking God for, asked a blessing in a peremptory sort of manner, as if he thought Heaven required a deal of pressing to make it attentive. Then they commenced to eat in silence, for none of the party were very much given to speech, and no sound was heard save the rattling of the cups and saucers and the steady ticking of the clock. The window was open, and a faint breeze came in — cool and fragrant with the scent of the forest, and perfumed with the peach-like odour of the gorse blossoms. There was a subdued twilight through all the room, for the night was coming on, and the gleam of the flickering flames of the fire danced gaily against the roof and exaggerated all objects to an immense size. At last Archie pushed back his chair to show that he had finished, and prepared to talk.

‘I dinna see ony new bodies coming,’ he said, looking at his mistress. ‘They, feckless things, that left were better than none, though they should hae been skelped for their idleness.’

‘You have written to Slivers?’ said Madame, raising her eyes.

‘That wudden-legged body,’ retorted McIntosh. ‘Deed and I have, but the auld tyke hasna done onything to getting me what I want. Weel, weel,’ in a resigned sort of a manner, ‘we micht be waur off than we are, an’ wha kens but what Providence will send us men by-and-bye?’

Selina looked up at this, saw her opportunity, and let slip an appropriate proverb.

‘If we go by by-and-bye lane,’ she said sharply, ‘we come to the gate of never.’

This being undeniable, no one gave her the pleasure of contradicting her, for Archie knew it was impossible to argue with Selina, so handy was she with her proverbial wisdom — a kind of domestic Tupper, whose philosophy was of the most irritating and unanswerable kind. He did the wisest thing he could under the circumstances, and started a new subject.

‘I say yon the day.’

‘Yon’ in this case meant Mr Villiers, whose name was tabooed in the house, and was always spoken of in a half-hinting kind of way. As both her servants knew all about her unhappy life, Madame did not scruple to talk to them.

‘How was he looking?’ she asked, smoothing the crumbs off her dress.

‘Brawly,’ replied Archie, rising; ‘he lost money on that Moscow mine, but he made a fine haul owre the Queen o’ Hearts claim.’

‘The wicked,’ observed Selina, ‘flourish like a green bay tree.’

‘Ou, ay,’ retorted McIntosh, drily; ‘we ken a’ aboot that, Selina — auld Hornie looks after his ain.’

‘I think he leads a very hand-to-mouth existence,’ said Madame, calmly; ‘however rich he may become, he will always be poor, because he never was a provident man.’

‘He’s comin’ tae see ye, mem,’ said Archie, grimly, lighting his pipe.

Madame rose to her feet and walked to the window.

‘He’s done that before,’ she said, complacently; ‘the result was not satisfactory.’

‘Continual dropping wears away a stone,’ said Selina, who was now clearing away.

‘But not iron,’ replied Madame, placidly; ‘I don’t think his persistence will gain anything.’

Archie smiled grimly, and then went outside to smoke his pipe, while Madame sat down by the open window and looked out at the fast-fading landscape.

Her thoughts were not pleasant. She had hoped to cut herself off from all the bitterness and sorrow of her past life, but this husband of hers, like an unquiet spirit, came to trouble her and remind her of a time she would willingly have forgotten. She looked calm and quiet enough sitting there with her placid face and smooth brow; but this woman was like a slumbering volcano, and her passions were all the more dangerous from being kept in check.

A bat flew high up in the air across the clear glow of the sky, disappearing into the adjacent bush, and Madame, stretching out her hand, idly plucked a fresh, dewy rose off the tree which grew round the window.

‘If I could only get rid of him,’ she thought, toying with the flower; ‘but it is impossible. I can’t do that without money, and money I never will have till I find that lead. I must bribe him, I suppose. Oh, why can’t he leave me alone now? Surely he has ruined my life sufficiently in the past to let me have a few years, if not of pleasure, at least of forgetfulness.’ And with a petulant gesture she hurled the rose out of the window, where it struck Archie a soft and fragrant blow on the cheek.

‘Yes,’ said Madame to herself, as she pulled down the window, ‘I must get rid of him, and if bribery won’t do — there are other means.’

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