Mr Villiers walked in a leisurely manner along the lower part of the town, with the intent of going up to his destination through the old mining gully. He took this route for two reasons — first, because the afternoon was hot, and it was easier climbing up that way than going by the ordinary road; and, second, on his journey through the chasm he would be able to mark some place where he could hide the nugget. With his stick under his arm, Mr Villiers trudged merrily along in a happy humour, as if he was bent on pleasure instead of robbery. And after all, as he said to himself, it could not be called a genuine robbery, as everything belonging to his wife was his by right of the marriage service, and he was only going to have his own again. With this comfortable thought he climbed slowly up the broken tortuous path which led to the Black Hill, and every now and then would pause to rest, and admire the view.
It was now nearly six o’clock, and the sun was sinking amid a blaze of splendour. The whole of the western sky was a sea of shimmering gold, and this, intensified near the horizon to almost blinding brightness, faded off towards the zenith of the sky into a delicate green, and thence melted imperceptibly into a cold blue.
Villiers, however, being of the earth, earthy, could not be troubled looking very long at such a common-place sight as a sunset; the same thing occurred every evening, and he had more important things to do than to waste his time gratifying his artistic eye. Arriving on the plateau of earth just in front of the gully, he was soon entering the narrow gorge, and tramped steadily along in deep thought, with bent head and wrinkled brows. The way being narrow, and Villiers being preoccupied, it was not surprising that as a man was coming down in the opposite direction, also preoccupied, they should run against one another. When this took place it gave Mr Villiers rather a start, as it suggested a possible witness to the deed he contemplated, a thing for which he was by no means anxious.
‘Really, sir,’ said the stranger, in a rich, rolling voice, and in a dignified tone, ‘I think you might look where you are going. From what I saw of you, your eyes were not fixed on the stars, and thus to cause your unwatched feet to stumble; in fact,’ said the speaker, looking up to the sky, ‘I see no stars whereon you could fix your gaze.’
This somewhat strange mode of remonstrance was delivered in a solemn manner, with appropriate gestures, and tickled Mr Villiers so much that he leaned up against a great rock abutting on the path, and laughed long and loudly.
‘That is right, sir,’ said the stranger, approvingly; ‘laughter is to the soul what food is to the body. I think, sir,’ in a Johnsonian manner, ‘the thought is a happy one.’
Villiers assented with a nod, and examined the speaker attentively. He was a man of medium height, rather portly than otherwise, with a clean-shaved face, clearly-cut features, and two merry grey eyes, which twinkled like stars as they rested on Villiers. His hair was greyish, and inclined to curl, but could not follow its natural inclination owing to the unsparing use of the barber’s shears. He wore a coat and trousers of white flannel, but no waistcoat; canvas shoes were on his feet, and a juvenile straw hat was perched on his iron-grey hair, the rim of which encircled his head like a halo of glory. He had small, well-shaped hands, one of which grasped a light cane, and the other a white silk pocket handkerchief, with which he frequently wiped his brow. He seemed very hot, and, leaning on the opposite side of the path against a rock, fanned himself first with his handkerchief and then with his hat, all the time looking at Mr Villiers with a beaming smile. At last he took a silver-mounted flask from his pocket and offered it to Villiers, with a pleasant bow.
‘It’s very hot, you know,’ he said, in his rich voice, as Villiers accepted the flask.
‘What, this?’ asked Villiers, indicating the flask, as he slowly unscrewed the top.
‘No; the day, my boy, the day. Ha! ha! ha!’ said the lively stranger, going off into fits of laughter, which vibrated like small thunder amid the high rocks surrounding them. ‘Good line for a comedy, I think. Ha! ha! — gad, I’ll make a note of it,’ and diving into one of the pockets of his coat, he produced therefrom an old letter, on the back of which he inscribed the witticism with the stump of a pencil.
Meanwhile Villiers, thinking the flask contained brandy, or at least whisky, took a long drink of it, but found to his horror it was merely a weak solution of sherry and water.
‘Oh, my poor stomach,’ he gasped, taking the flask from his lips.
‘Colic?’ inquired the stranger with a pleasant smile, as he put back the letter and pencil, ‘hot water fomentations are what you need. Wonderful cure. Will bring you to life again though you were at your last gasp. Ha!’ struck with a sudden idea, ‘“His Last Gasp”, good title for a melodrama — mustn’t forget that,’ and out came the letter and the pencil again.
Mr Villiers explained in a somewhat gruff tone that it was not colic, but that his medical attendant allowed him to drink nothing but whisky.
‘To be taken twenty times a day, I presume,’ observed the stranger, with a wink; ‘no offence meant, sir,’ as Villiers showed a disposition to resent this, ‘merely a repartee. Good for a comedy, I fancy; what do you think?’
‘I think,’ said Mr Villiers, handing him back the flask, ‘that you’re very eccentric.’
‘Eccentric?’ replied the other, in an airy tone, ‘not at all, sir. I’m merely a civilized being with the veneer off. I am not hidden under an artificial coat of manner. No, I laugh — ha! ha! I skip, ha! ha!’ with a light trip on one foot. ‘I cry,’ in a dismal tone. ‘In fact, I am a man in his natural state — civilized sufficiently, but not over civilized.’
‘What’s your name?’ asked Mr Villiers, wondering whether the portly gentleman was mad.
For reply the stranger dived into another pocket, and, bringing to light a long bill-poster, held it up before Mr Villiers.
‘Read! mark! and inwardly digest!’ he said in a muffled tone behind the bill.
This document set forth in red, black, and blue letters, that the celebrated Wopples Family, consisting of twelve star artistes, were now in Ballarat, and would that night appear at the Academy of Music in their new and original farcical comedy, called ‘The Cruet-Stand’. Act I: Pepper! Act II: Mustard! Act III: Vinegar.
‘You, then,’ said Villiers, after he had perused this document, ‘are Mr Wopples?’
‘Theodore Wopples, at your service,’ said that gentleman, rolling up the bill, then putting it into his pocket, he produced therefrom a batch of tickets. ‘One of these,’ handing a ticket to Villiers, ‘will admit you to the stalls tonight, where you will see myself and the children in “The Cruet-Stand”.’
‘Rather a peculiar title, isn’t it?’ said Villiers, taking the ticket.
‘The play is still more peculiar, sir,’ replied Mr Wopples, restoring the bulky packet of tickets to his pocket, ‘dealing as it does with the adventures of a youth who hides his father’s will in a cruet stand, which is afterwards annexed by a comic bailiff.’
‘But isn’t it rather a curious thing to hide a will in a cruet stand?’ asked Villiers, smiling at the oddity of the idea.
‘Therein, sir, lies the peculiarity of the play,’ said Mr Wopples, grandly. ‘Of course the characters find out in Act I that the will is in the cruet stand; in Act II, while pursuing it, they get mixed up with the bailiff’s mother-in-law; and in Act III,’ finished Mr Wopples, exultingly, ‘they run it to earth in a pawnshop. Oh, I assure you it is a most original play.’
‘Very,’ assented the other, dryly; ‘the author must be a man of genius — who wrote it?’
‘Its a translation from the German, sir,’ said Mr Wopples, taking a drink of sherry and water, ‘and was originally produced in London as “The Pickle Bottle”, the will being hidden with the family onions. In Melbourne it was the success of the year under the same title. I,’ with an air of genius, ‘called it “The Cruet Stand”.’
‘Then how did you get a hold of it,’ asked Villiers.
‘My wife, sir,’ said the actor, rolling out the words in his deep voice. ‘A wonderful woman, sir; paid a visit to Melbourne, and there, sir, seated at the back of the pit between a coal-heaver and an apple-woman, she copied the whole thing down.’
‘But isn’t that rather mean?’
‘Certainly not,’ retorted Wopples, haughtily; ‘the opulent Melbourne managers refuse to let me have their new pieces, so I have to take the law into my own hands. I’ll get all the latest London successes in the same way. We play “Ours” under the title of “The Hero’s Return, or the Soldier’s Bride”: we have done the “Silver King” as “The Living Dead”, which was an immense success.’
Villiers thought that under such a contradictory title it would rather pique the curiosity of the public.
‘To-morrow night,’ pursued Mr Wopples, ‘we act “Called Back”, but it is billed as “The Blind Detective”; thus,’ said the actor, with virtuous scorn, ‘do we evade the grasping avarice of the Melbourne managers, who would make us pay fees for them.’
‘By the way,’ said Mr Wopples, breaking off suddenly in a light and airy manner, ‘as I came down here I saw a lovely girl — a veritable fairy, sir — with golden hair, and a bright smile that haunts me still. I exchanged a few remarks with her regarding the beauty of the day, and thus allegorically referred to the beauty of herself — a charming flight of fancy, I think, sir.’
‘It must have been Kitty Marchurst,’ said Villiers, not attending to the latter portion of Mr Wopples’ remarks.
‘Ah, indeed,’ said Mr Wopples, lightly, ‘how beautiful is the name of Kitty; it suggests poetry immediately — for instance:
Kitty, ah Kitty, You are so pretty, Charming and witty, That ’twere a pity I sung not this ditty In praise of my Kitty.
On the spur of the moment, sir, I assure you; does it not remind you of Herrick?’
Mr Villiers bluntly said it did not.
‘Ah! perhaps it’s more like Shakespeare?’ observed the actor, quite unabashed. ‘You think so?’
Mr Villiers was doubtful, and displayed such anxiety to get away that Mr Wopples held out his hand to say goodbye.
‘You’ll excuse me, I know,’ said Mr Wopples, in an apologetic tone, ‘but the show commences at eight, and it is now half-past six. I trust I shall see you tonight.’
‘It’s very kind of you to give me this ticket,’ said Villiers, in whom the gentlemanly instinct still survived.
‘Not at all; not at all,’ retorted Mr Wopples, with a wink. ‘Business, my boy, business. Always have a good house first night, so must go into the highways and byways for an audience. Ha! Biblical illustration, you see;’ and with a gracious wave of his hand he skipped lightly down the path and disappeared from sight.
It was now getting dark; so Mr Villiers went on his own way, and having selected a mining shaft where he could hide the nugget, he climbed up to the top of the hill, and lying down under the shadow of a rock where he could get a good view of Marchurst’s house, he waited patiently till such time as his wife would start for home.
‘I’ll pay you out for all you’ve done,’ he muttered to himself, as he lay curled up in the black shadow like a noisome reptile. ‘Tit for tat, my lady!-tit for tat!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55