It was some time before Mrs Villiers recovered from the shock caused by her encounter with her husband. The blow he had struck her on the side of the head turned out to be more serious than was at first anticipated, and Selina deemed it advisable that a doctor should be called in. So Archie went into Ballarat, and returned to the Pactolus with Dr Gollipeck, an eccentric medical practitioner, whose peculiarities were the talk of the city.
Dr Gollipeck was tall and lank, with an unfinished look about him, as if Nature in some sudden freak had seized an incomplete skeleton from a museum and hastily covered it with parchment. He dressed in rusty black, wore dingy cotton gloves, carried a large white umbrella, and surveyed the world through the medium of a pair of huge spectacles. His clothes were constantly coming undone, as he scorned the use of buttons, and preferred pins, which were always scratching his hands. He spoke very little, and was engaged in composing an erudite work on ‘The Art of Poisoning, from Borgia to Brinvilliers’.
Selina was not at all impressed with his appearance, and mentally decided that a good wash and a few buttons would improve him wonderfully. Dr Gollipeck, however, soon verified the adage that appearances are deceptive — as Selina afterwards remarked to Archie — by bringing Madame Midas back to health in a wonderfully short space of time. She was now convalescent, and, seated in the arm-chair by the window, looked dreamily at the landscape. She was thinking of her husband, and in what manner he would annoy her next; but she half thought — and the wish was father to the half thought — that having got the nugget he would now leave her alone.
She knew that he had not been in Ballarat since that fatal night when he had attacked her, but imagined that he was merely hiding till such time as the storm should blow over and he could enjoy his ill-gotten gains in safety. The letter asking him to give up the nugget and ordering him to leave the district under threat of prosecution had been sent to his lodgings, but was still lying there unopened. The letters accumulated into quite a little pile as weeks rolled on, yet Mr Villiers, if he was alive, made no sign, and if he was dead, no traces had been found of his body. McIntosh and Slivers had both seen the police about the affair, one in order to recover the nugget, the other actuated by bitter enmity against Madame Midas. To Slivers’ hints, that perhaps Villiers’ wife knew more than she chose to tell, the police turned a deaf ear, as they assured Slivers that they had made inquiries, and on the authority of Selina and McIntosh could safely say that Madame Midas had been home that night at half-past nine o’clock, whereas Villiers was still alive in Ballarat — as could be proved by the evidence of Mr Jarper — at two o’clock in the morning. So, foiled on every side in his endeavours to implicate Mrs Villiers in her husband’s disappearance, Slivers retired to his office, and, assisted by his ungodly cockatoo, passed many hours in swearing at his bad luck and in cursing the absent Villiers.
As to M. Vandeloup, he was indefatigable in his efforts to find Villiers, for, as he very truly said, he could never repay Madame Midas sufficiently for her kindness to him, and he wanted to do all in his power to punish her cruel husband. But in spite of all this seeking, the whereabouts of Mr Randolph Villiers remained undiscovered, and at last, in despair, everyone gave up looking. Villiers had disappeared entirely, and had taken the nugget with him, so where he was and what he was doing remained a mystery.
One result of Madame’s illness was that M. Vandeloup had met Dr Gollipeck, and the two, though apparently dissimilar in both character and appearance, had been attracted to one another by a liking which they had in common. This was the study of toxicology, a science at which the eccentric old man had spent a lifetime. He found in Vandeloup a congenial spirit, for the young Frenchman had a wonderful liking for the uncanny subject; but there was a difference in the aims of both men, Gollipeck being drawn to the study of poisons from a pure love of the subject, whereas Vandeloup wanted to find out the secrets of toxicology for his own ends, which were anything but disinterested.
Wearied of the dull routine of the office work, Vandeloup was taking a walk in the meadows which surrounded the Pactolus, when he saw Dr Gollipeck shuffling along the dusty white road from the railway station.
‘Good day, Monsieur le Medecin,’ said Vandeloup, gaily, as he came up to the old man; ‘are you going to see our mutual friend?’
Gollipeck, ever sparing of words, nodded in reply, and trudged on in silence, but the Frenchmen, being used to the eccentricities of his companion, was in nowise offended at his silence, but went on talking in an animated manner.
‘Ah, my dear friend,’ he said, pushing his straw hat back on his fair head; ‘how goes on the great work?’
‘Capitally,’ returned the doctor, with a complacent smile; ‘just finished “Catherine de Medici”— wonderful woman, sir — quite a mistress of the art of poisoning.’
‘Humph,’ returned Vandeloup, thoughtfully, lighting a cigarette, ‘I do not agree with you there; it was her so-called astrologer, Ruggieri, who prepared all her potions. Catherine certainly had the power, but Ruggieri possessed the science — a very fair division of labour for getting rid of people, I must say — but what have you got there?’ nodding towards a large book which Gollipeck carried under his arm.
‘For you,’ answered the other, taking the book slowly from under his arm, and thereby causing another button to fly off, ‘quite new — work on toxicology.’
‘Thank you,’ said Vandeloup, taking the heavy volume and looking at the title; ‘French, I see! I’m sure it will be pleasant reading.’
The title of the book was ‘Les Empoisonneurs d’Aujourd’hui, par MM. Prevol et Lebrun’, and it had only been published the previous year; so as he turned over the leaves carelessly, M. Vandeloup caught sight of a name which he knew. He smiled a little, and closing the book put it under his arm, while he turned smilingly towards his companion, whom he found looking keenly at him.
‘I shall enjoy this book immensely,’ he said, touching the volume. Dr Gollipeck nodded and chuckled in a hoarse rattling kind of way.
‘So I should think,’ he answered, with another sharp look, ‘you are a very clever young man, my friend.’
Vandeloup acknowledged the compliment with a bow, and wondered mentally what this old man meant. Gaston, however, was never without an answer, so he turned to Gollipeck again with a nonchalant smile on his handsome lips.
‘So kind of you to think well of me,’ he said, coolly flicking the ash off the end of his cigarette with his little finger; ‘but why do you pay me such a compliment?’
Gollipeck answered the question by asking another.
‘Why are you so fond of toxicology?’ he said, abruptly, shuffling his feet in the long dry grass in which they were now walking in order to rub the dust off his ungainly, ill-blacked shoes.
Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.
‘To pass the time,’ he said, carelessly, ‘that is all; even office work, exciting as it is, becomes wearisome, so I must take up some subject to amuse myself.’
‘Curious taste for a young man,’ remarked the doctor, dryly.
‘Nature,’ said M. Vandeloup, ‘does not form men all on the same pattern, and my taste for toxicology has at least the charm of novelty.’
Gollipeck looked at the young man again in a sharp manner.
‘I hope you’ll enjoy the book,’ he said, abruptly, and vanished into the house.
When he was gone, the mocking smile so habitual to Vandeloup’s countenance faded away, and his face assumed a thoughtful expression. He opened the book, and turned over the leaves rapidly, but without finding what he was in search of. With an uneasy laugh he shut the volume with a snap, and put it under his arm again.
‘He’s an enigma,’ he thought, referring to the doctor; ‘but he can’t suspect anything. The case may be in this book, but I doubt if even this man with the barbarous name can connect Gaston Vandeloup, of Ballarat, with Octave Braulard, of Paris.’
His face reassumed its usual gay look, and throwing away the half-smoked cigarette, he walked into the house and found Madame Midas seated in her arm-chair near the window looking pale and ill, while Archie was walking up and down in an excited manner, and talking volubly in broad Scotch. As to Dr Gollipeck, that eccentric individual was standing in front of the fire, looking even more dilapidated than usual, and drying his red bandanna handkerchief in an abstract manner. Selina was in another room getting a drink for Madame, and as Vandeloup entered she came back with it.
‘Good day, Madame,’ said the Frenchman, advancing to the table, and putting his hat and the book down on it. ‘How are you today?’
‘Better, much better, thank you,’ said Madame, with a faint smile; ‘the doctor assures me I shall be quite well in a week.’
‘With perfect rest and quiet, of course,’ interposed Gollipeck, sitting down and spreading his handkerchief over his knees.
‘Which Madame does not seem likely to get,’ observed Vandeloup, dryly, with a glance at McIntosh, who was still pacing up and down the room with an expression of wrath on his severe face.
‘Ou, ay,’ said that gentleman, stopping in front of Vandeloup, with a fine expression of scorn. ‘I ken weel ’tis me ye are glowerin’ at — div ye no’ ken what’s the matter wi’ me?’
‘Not being in your confidence,’ replied Gaston, smoothly, taking a seat, ‘I can hardly say that I do.’
‘It’s just that Peter o’ yours,’ said Archie, with a snort; ‘a puir weecked unbaptised child o’ Satan.’
‘Archie!’ interposed Madame, with some severity.
‘Your pardon’s begged, mem,’ said Archie, sourly turning to her; ‘but as for that Peter body, the Lord keep me tongue fra’ swearin’, an’ my hand from itching to gie him ain on the lug, when I think o’ him.’
‘What’s he been doing?’ asked Vandeloup, coolly. ‘I am quite prepared to hear anything about him in his present state.’
‘It’s just this,’ burst forth Archie, wrathfully. ‘I went intil the toun to the hotel, to tell the body he must come back tae the mine, and I find him no in a fit state for a Christian to speak to.’
‘Therefore,’ interposed Vandeloup, in his even voice, without lifting his eyes, ‘it was a pity you did speak to him.’
‘I gang t’ the room,’ went on Archie excitedly, without paying any attention to Vandeloup’s remark, ‘an’ the deil flew on me wi’ a dirk, and wud hae split my weasand, but I hed the sense to bang the door to, and turn the key in the lock. D’y ca’ that conduct for a ceevilized body?’
‘The fact is, M. Vandeloup,’ said Madame, quietly, ‘Archie is so annoyed at this conduct that he does not want Lemaire to come back to work.’
‘Ma certie, I should just think so,’ cried McIntosh, rubbing his head with his handkerchief. ‘Fancy an imp of Beelzebub like yon in the bowels o’ the earth. Losh! but it macks my bluid rin cauld when I think o’ the bluidthirsty pagan.’
To Vandeloup, this information was not unpleasant. He was anxious to get rid of Pierre, who was such an incubus, and now saw that he could send him away without appearing to wish to get rid of him. But as he was a diplomatic young man he did not allow his satisfaction to appear on his face.
‘Aren’t you rather hard on him?’ he said, coolly, leaning back in his chair; ‘he is simply drunk, and will be all right soon.’
‘I tell ye I’ll no have him back,’ said Archie, firmly; ‘he’s ain o’ they foreign bodies full of revolutions an’ confusion o’ tongues, and I’d no feel safe i’ the mine if I kenned that deil was doon below wi’ his dirk.’
‘I really think he ought to go,’ said Madame, looking rather anxiously at Vandeloup, ‘unless, M. Vandeloup, you do not want to part with him.’
‘Oh, I don’t want him,’ said Vandeloup, hastily; ‘as I told you, he was only one of the sailors on board the ship I was wrecked in, and he followed me up here because I was the only friend he had, but now he has got money — or, at least, his wages must come to a good amount.’
‘Forty pounds,’ interposed Archie.
‘So I think the best thing he can do is to go to Melbourne, and see if he can get back to France.’
‘And you, M. Vandeloup?’ asked Dr Gollipeck, who had been listening to the young Frenchman’s remarks with great interest; ‘do you not wish to go to France?’
Vandeloup rose coolly from his chair, and, picking up his book and hat, turned to the doctor.
‘My dear Monsieur,’ he said, leaning up against the wall in a graceful manner, ‘I left France to see the world, so until I have seen it I don’t think it would be worthwhile to return.’
‘Never go back when you have once put your hand to the plough,’ observed Selina, opportunely, upon which Vandeloup bowed to her.
‘Mademoiselle,’ he said, quietly, with a charming smile, ‘has put the matter into the shell of a nut; Australia is my plough, and I do not take my hand away until I have finished with it.’
‘But that deil o’ a Peter,’ said Archie, impatiently.
‘If you will permit me, Madame,’ said Vandeloup, ‘I will write out a cheque for the amount of money due to him, and you will sign it. I will go into Ballarat to-morrow, and get him away to Melbourne. I propose to buy him a box and some clothes, as he certainly is not capable of getting them himself.’
‘You have a kind heart, M. Vandeloup,’ said Madame, as she assented with a nod.
A stifled laugh came from the Doctor, but as he was such an extremely eccentric individual no one minded him.
‘Come, Monsieur,’ said Vandeloup, going to the door, ‘let us be off to the office and see how much is due to my friend,’ and with a bow to Madame, he went out.
‘A braw sort o’ freend,’ muttered Archie, as he followed.
‘Quite good enough for him,’ retorted Dr Gollipeck, who overheard him.
Archie looked at him approvingly, nodded his head, and went out after the Frenchman, but Madame, being a woman and curious, asked the doctor what he meant.
His reply was peculiar.
‘Our friend,’ he said, putting his handkerchief in his pocket and seizing his greasy old hat, ‘our friend believes in the greatest number.’
‘And what is the greatest number?’ asked Madame, innocently.
‘Number one,’ retorted the Doctor, and took his leave abruptly, leaving two buttons and several pins on the floor as traces of his visit.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09