Slivers was puzzled over Villiers’ disappearance, so he determined to go in search of evidence against Madame Midas, though for what reason he wanted evidence against her no one but himself — and perhaps Billy — knew. But then Slivers always was an enigma regarding his reasons for doing things, and even the Sphinx would have found him a difficult riddle to solve.
The reasons he had for turning detective were simply these: It soon became known that Madame Midas had been robbed by her husband of the famous nugget, and great was the indignation of everyone against Mr Villiers. That gentleman would have fared very badly if he had made his appearance, but for some reason or another he did not venture forth. In fact, he had completely disappeared, and where he was no one knew. The last person who saw him was Barty Jarper, who left him at the corner of Lydiard and Sturt Streets, when Mr Villiers had announced his intention of going home. Mrs Cheedle, however, asserted positively that she had never set eyes on him since the time she stated to Slivers, and as it was now nearly two weeks since he had disappeared things were beginning to look serious. The generally received explanation was that he had bolted with the nugget, but as he could hardly dispose of such a large mass of gold without suspicion, and as the police both in Ballarat and Melbourne had made inquiries, which proved futile, this theory began to lose ground.
It was at this period that Slivers asserted himself — coming forward, he hinted in an ambiguous sort of way that Villiers had met with foul play, and that some people had their reasons for wishing to get rid of him. This was clearly an insinuation against Madame Midas, but everyone refused to believe such an impossible story, so Slivers determined to make good his words, and went in search of evidence.
The Wopples Family having left Ballarat, Slivers was unable to see Mr Theodore Wopples, who had been in Villiers’ company on the night of his disappearance.
Mr Barty Jarper, however, had not yet departed, so Slivers waylaid him, and asked him in a casual way to drop into his office and have a drink, with a view of finding out from him all the events of that night.
Barty was on his way to a lawn tennis party, and was arrayed in a flannel suit of many colours, with his small, white face nearly hidden under a large straw hat. Being of a social turn of mind, he did not refuse Slivers’ invitation, but walked into the dusty office and assisted himself liberally to the whisky.
‘Here’s fun, old cock!’ he said, in a free and easy manner, raising his glass to his lips; ‘may your shadow never be less.’
Slivers hoped devoutly that his shadow never would be less, as that would involve the loss of several other limbs, which he could ill spare; so he honoured Mr Jarper’s toast with a rasping little laugh, and prepared to talk.
‘It’s very kind of you to come and talk to an old chap like me,’ said Slivers, in as amiable a tone as he could command, which was not much. ‘You’re such a gay young fellow!’
Mr Jarper acknowledged modestly that he was gay, but that he owed certain duties to society, and had to be mildly social.
‘And so handsome!’ croaked Slivers, winking with his one eye at Billy, who sat on the table. ‘Oh, he’s all there, ain’t he, Billy?’
Billy, however, did not agree to this, and merely observed ‘Pickles,’ in a disbelieving manner.
Mr Jarper felt rather overcome by this praise, and blushed in a modest way, but felt that he could not return the compliment with any degree of truth, as Slivers was not handsome, neither was he all there.
He, however, decided that Slivers was an unusually discerning person, and worthy to talk to, so prepared to make himself agreeable.
Slivers, who had thus gained the goodwill of the young man by flattery, plunged into the subject of Villiers’ disappearance.
‘I wonder what’s become of Villiers,’ he said, artfully pushing the whisky bottle toward Barty.
‘I’m sure I don’t know,’ said Barty in a languid, used-up sort of voice, pouring himself out some more whisky, ‘I haven’t seen him since last Monday week.’
‘Where did you leave him on that night?’ asked Slivers.
‘At the corner of Sturt and Lydiard Streets.’
‘Early in the morning, I suppose?’
‘Yes — pretty early — about two o’clock, I think.’
‘And you never saw him after that?’
‘Not a sight of him,’ replied Barty; ‘but, I say, why all this thusness?’
‘I’ll tell you after you have answered my questions,’ retorted Slivers, rudely, ‘but I’m not asking out of curiosity — its business.’
Barty thought that Slivers was very peculiar, but determined to humour him, and to take his leave as early as possible.
‘Well, go on,’ he said, drinking his whisky, ‘I’ll answer.’
‘Who else was with you and Villiers on that night?’ asked Slivers in a magisterial kind of manner.
‘A French fellow called Vandeloup.’
‘Vandeloup!’ echoed Slivers in surprise; ‘oh, indeed! what the devil was he doing?’
‘Enjoying himself,’ replied Barty, coolly; ‘he came into the theatre and Villiers introduced him to me; then Mr Wopples asked us all to supper.’
‘You went, of course?’
‘Rather, old chap; what do you take us for?’— this from Barty, with a knowing wink.
‘What time did Vandeloup leave?’ asked Slivers, not paying any attention to Barty’s pantomime.
‘About twenty minutes to twelve.’
‘Oh! I suppose that was because he had to drive out to the Pactolus?’
‘Not such a fool, dear boy; he stayed all night in town.’
‘Oh!’ ejaculated Slivers, in an excited manner, drumming on the table with his fingers, ‘where did he stay?’
‘At the Wattle Tree Hotel.’
Slivers mentally made a note of this, and determined to go there and find out at what time Vandeloup had come home on the night in question, for this suspicious old man had now got it into his head that Vandeloup was in some way responsible for Villiers’ disappearance.
‘Where did Villiers say he was going when he left you?’ he asked.
‘Humph! Well, he didn’t go home at all.’
‘Didn’t he?’ echoed Barty, in some astonishment. ‘Then what’s become of him? Men don’t disappear in this mysterious way without some reason.’
‘Ah, but there is a reason,’ replied Slivers, bending across the table and clawing at the papers thereon with the lean fingers of his one hand.
‘Why! what do you think is the reason?’ faltered Barty, letting his eye-glass drop out of his eye, and edging his chair further away from this terrible old man.
‘Murder!’ hissed the other through his thin lips. ‘He’s been murdered!’
‘Lord!’ ejaculated Barty, jumping up from his chair in alarm; ‘you’re going too far, old chap.’
‘I’m going further,’ retorted Slivers, rising from his chair and stumping up and down the room; ‘I’m going to find out who did it, and then I’ll grind her to powder; I’ll twist her neck off, curse her.’
‘Is it a woman?’ asked Barty, who now began to think of making a retreat, for Slivers, with his one eye blazing, and his cork arm swinging rapidly to and fro, was not a pleasant object to contemplate.
This unguarded remark recalled Slivers to himself.
That’s what I want to find out,’ he replied, sulkily, going back to his chair. ‘Have some more whisky?’
‘No, thanks,’ answered Barty, going to the door, ‘I’m late as it is for my engagement; ta, ta, old chap, I hope you’ll drop on the he or she you’re looking for; but you’re quite wrong, Villiers has bolted with the nugget, and that’s a fact, sir,’ and with an airy wave of his hand Barty went out, leaving Slivers in anything but a pleasant temper.
‘Bah! you peacock,’ cried this wicked old man, banging his wooden leg against the table, ‘you eye-glass idiot — you brainless puppy — I’m wrong, am I? we’ll see about that, you rag-shop.’ This last in allusion to Barty’s picturesque garb. ‘I’ve found out all I want from you, and I’ll track her down, and put her in gaol, and hang her — hang her till she’s as dead as a door nail.’
Having given vent to this pleasant sentiment, Slivers put on his hat, and, taking his stick, walked out of his office, but not before Billy saw his intention and had climbed up to his accustomed place on the old man’s shoulder. So Slivers stumped along the street, with the cockatoo on his shoulder, looking like a depraved Robinson Crusoe, and took his way to the Wattle Tree Hotel.
‘If,’ argued Slivers to himself, as he pegged bravely along, ‘if Villiers wanted to get rid of the nugget he’d have come to me, for he knew I’d keep quiet and tell no tales. Well, he didn’t come to me, and there’s no one else he could go to. They’ve been looking for him all over the shop, and they can’t find him; he can’t be hiding or he’d have let me know; there’s only one explanation — he’s been murdered — but not for the gold — oh, dear no — for nobody knew he had it. Who wanted him out of the way? — his wife. Would she stick at anything? — I’m damned if she would. So it’s her work. The only question is did she do it personally or by deputy. I say deputy, ‘cause she’d be too squeamish to do it herself. Who would she select as deputy? — Vandeloup! Why? —‘cause he’d like to marry her for her money. Yes, I’m sure it’s him. Things look black against him: he stayed in town all night, a thing he never did before — leaves the supper at a quarter to twelve, so as to avoid suspicion; waits till Villiers comes out at two in the morning and kills him. Aha! my handsome jackadandy,’ cried Slivers, viciously, suddenly stopping and shaking his stick at an imaginary Vandeloup; ‘I’ve got you under my thumb, and I’ll crush the life out of you — and of her also, if I can;’ and with this amiable resolution Slivers resumed his way.
Slivers’ argument was plausible, but there were plenty of flaws in it, which, however, he did not stop to consider, so carried away was he by his anger against Madame Midas. He stumped along doggedly, revolving the whole affair in his mind, and by the time he arrived at the Wattle Tree Hotel he had firmly persuaded himself that Villiers was dead, and that Vandeloup had committed the crime at the instigation of Mrs Villiers.
He found Miss Twexby seated in the bar, with a decidedly cross face, which argued ill for anyone who held converse with her that day; but as Slivers was quite as crabbed as she was, and, moreover, feared neither God nor man — much less a woman — he tackled her at once.
‘Where’s your father?’ he asked, abruptly, leaning on his stick and looking intently at the fair Martha’s vinegary countenance.
‘Asleep!’ snapped that damsel, jerking her head in the direction of the parlour; ‘what do you want?’— very disdainfully.
‘A little civility in the first place,’ retorted Slivers, rudely, sitting down on a bench that ran along the wall, and thereby causing his wooden leg to stick straight out, which, being perceived by Billy, he descended from the old man’s shoulder and turned the leg into a perch, where he sat and swore at Martha.
‘You wicked old wretch,’ said Miss Twexby, viciously — her nose getting redder with suppressed excitement —‘go along with you, and take that irreligious parrot with you, or I’ll wake my par.’
‘He won’t thank you for doing so,’ replied Slivers, coolly; ‘I’ve called to see him about some new shares just on the market, and if you don’t treat me with more respect I’ll go, and he’ll be out of a good thing.’
Now, Miss Twexby knew that Slivers was in the habit of doing business with her parent, and, moreover was a power in the share market, so she did not deem it diplomatic to go too far, and bottling up her wrath for a future occasion, when no loss would be involved, she graciously asked Slivers what he’d be pleased to have.
‘Whisky,’ said Slivers, curtly, leaning his chin on his stick, and following her movements with his one eye. ‘I say!’
‘Well?’ asked Miss Twexby, coming from behind the bar with a glass and a bottle of whisky, ‘what do you say?’
‘How’s that good-looking Frenchman?’ asked Slivers, pouring himself out some liquor, and winking at her in a rakish manner with his one eye.
‘How should I know?’ snapped Martha, angrily, ‘he comes here to see that friend of his, and then clears out without as much as a good day; a nice sort of friend, indeed,’ wrathfully, ‘stopping here nearly two weeks and drunk all the time; he’ll be having delirious trimmings before he’s done.’
‘Who will?’ said Slivers, taking a sip of his whisky and water.
‘Why, that other Frenchman!’ retorted Martha, going to her place behind the bar, ‘Peter something; a low, black wretch, all beard, with no tongue, and a thirst like a lime-kiln.’
‘Oh, the dumb man.’
Miss Twexby nodded.
‘That’s him,’ she said, triumphantly, ‘he’s been here for the last two weeks.’
‘Drunk, I think you said,’ remarked Slivers, politely.
Martha laughed scornfully, and took out some sewing.
‘I should just think so,’ she retorted, tossing her head, ‘he does nothing but drink all day, and run after people with that knife.’
‘Very dangerous,’ observed Slivers, gravely shaking his head; ‘why don’t you get rid of him?’
‘So we are,’ said Miss Twexby, biting off a bit of cotton, as if she wished it were Pierre’s head; ‘he is going down to Melbourne the day after to-morrow.’
Slivers got weary of hearing about Pierre, and plunged right off into the object of his visit.
‘That Vandeloup,’ he began.
‘Well?’ said Miss Twexby, letting the work fall on her lap.
‘What time did he come home the night he stopped here?’
‘Get along with you,’ said Slivers, in disgust, ‘you mean three o’clock.’
‘No, I don’t,’ retorted Martha, indignantly; ‘you’ll be telling me I don’t know the time next.’
‘Did he go out again?
‘No, he went to bed.’
This quite upset Slivers’ idea — as if Vandeloup had gone to bed at twelve, he certainly could not have murdered Villiers nearly a mile away at two o’clock in the morning. Slivers was puzzled, and then the light broke on him — perhaps it was the dumb man.
‘Did the other stay here all night also?’
Miss Twexby nodded. ‘Both in the same room,’ she answered.
‘What time did the dumb chap come in?’
Here was another facer for Slivers — as it could not have been Pierre.
‘Did he go to bed?’
‘And did not leave the house again?’
‘Of course not,’ retorted Miss Twexby, impatiently; ‘do you think I’m a fool — no one goes either in or out of this house without my knowing it. The dumb devil went to bed at half-past nine, and Mr Vandeloup at half-past twelve, and they neither of them came out of their rooms till next morning.’
‘How do you know Vandeloup was in at twelve?’ asked Slivers, still unconvinced.
‘Drat the man, what’s he worryin’ about?’ rejoined Miss Twexby, snappishly; ‘I let him in myself.’
This clearly closed the subject, and Slivers arose to his feet in great disgust, upsetting Billy on to the floor.
‘Devil!’ shrieked Billy, as he dropped. ‘Oh, my precious mother. Devil — devil — devil — you’re a liar — you’re a liar — Bendigo and Ballarat — Ballarat and Bendigo — Pickles!’
Having thus run through a portion of his vocabulary, he subsided into silence, and let Slivers pick him up in order to go home.
‘A nice pair you are,’ muttered Martha, grimly, looking at them. ‘I wish I had the thrashing of you. Won’t you stay and see par?’ she called out as Slivers departed.
‘I’ll come to-morrow,’ answered Slivers, angrily, for he felt very much out of temper; then, in a lower voice, he observed to himself, ‘I’d like to put that jade in a teacup and crush her.’
He stumped home in silence, thinking all the time; and it was only when he arrived back in his office that he gave utterance to his thoughts.
‘It couldn’t have been either of the Frenchmen,’ he said, lighting his pipe. ‘She must have done it herself.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55