There was great dismay at the Pactolus Mine when it became known that Vandeloup was going to leave. During his short stay he had made himself extremely popular with the men, as he always had a bright smile and a kind word for everyone, so they all felt like losing a personal friend. The only two who were unfeigningly glad at Vandeloup’s departure were Selina and McIntosh, for these two faithful hearts had seen with dismay the influence the Frenchman was gradually gaining over Madame Midas. As long as Villiers lived they felt safe, but now that he had so mysteriously disappeared, and was to all appearances dead, they dreaded lest their mistress, in a moment of infatuation, should marry her clerk. They need not, however, have been afraid, for much as Mrs Villiers liked the young Frenchman, such an idea had never entered her head, and she was far too clever a woman ever to tempt matrimony a second time, seeing how dearly it had cost her.
Madame Midas had made great efforts to find Kitty, but without success; and, in spite of all inquiries and advertisements in the papers, nothing could be discovered regarding the missing girl.
At last the time drew near for Vandeloup’s departure, when all the sensation of Kitty’s escapade and Villiers’ disappearance was swallowed up in a new event, which filled Ballarat with wonder. It began in a whisper, and grew into such a roar of astonishment that not only Ballarat, but all Victoria, knew that the far-famed Devil’s Lead had been discovered in the Pactolus claim. Yes, after years of weary waiting, after money had been swallowed up in apparently useless work, after sceptics had sneered and friends laughed, Madame Midas obtained her reward. The Devil’s Lead was discovered, and she was now a millionaire.
For some time past McIntosh had not been satisfied with the character of the ground in which he had been working, so abandoning the shaft he was then in, he had opened up another gallery to the west, at right angles from the place where the famous nugget had been found. The wash was poor at first, but McIntosh persevered, having an instinct that he was on the right track. A few weeks’ work proved that he was right, for the wash soon became richer; and as they went farther on towards the west, following the gutter, there was no doubt that the long-lost Devil’s Lead had been struck. The regular return had formerly been five ounces to the machine, but now the washing up invariably gave twenty ounces, and small nuggets of water-worn gold were continually found in the three machines. The main drive following the lead still continued dipping westward, and McIntosh now commenced blocking and putting in side galleries, expecting when this was done he would thoroughly prove the Devil’s Lead, for he was quite satisfied he was on it. Even now the yield was three hundred and sixty ounces a week, and after deducting working expenses, this gave Madame Midas a weekly income of one thousand one hundred pounds, so she now began to see what a wealthy woman she was likely to be. Everyone unfeigningly rejoiced at her good fortune, and said that she deserved it. Many thought that now she was so rich Villiers would come back again, but he did not put in an appearance, and it was generally concluded he had left the colony.
Vandeloup congratulated Madame Midas on her luck when he was going away, and privately determined that he would not lose sight of her, as, being a wealthy woman, and having a liking for him, she would be of great use. He took his farewell gracefully, and went away, carrying the good wishes of all the miners; but McIntosh and Selina, still holding to their former opinion, were secretly pleased at his departure. Madame Midas made him a present of a hundred pounds, and, though he refused it, saying that he had money from France, she asked him as a personal favour to take it; so M. Vandeloup, always gallant to ladies, could not refuse. He went in to Ballarat, and put up at the Wattle Tree Hotel, intending to start for the metropolis next morning; but on his way, in order to prepare Kitty for his coming, sent a telegram for her, telling her the train he would arrive by, in order that she might be at the station to meet him.
After his dinner he suddenly recollected that he still had the volume which Dr Gollipeck had lent him, so, calling a cab, he drove to the residence of that eccentric individual to return it.
When the servant announced M. Vandeloup, she pushed him in and suddenly closed the door after her, as though she was afraid of some of the doctor’s ideas getting away.
‘Good evening, doctor,’ said Vandeloup, laying the book down on the table at which Gollipeck was seated; ‘I’ve come to return you this and say good-bye.’
‘Aha, going away?’ asked Gollipeck, leaning back in his chair, and looked sharply at the young man through his spectacles, ‘right — see the world — you’re clever — won’t go far wrong — no!’
‘It doesn’t matter much if I do,’ replied Vandeloup, shrugging his shoulders, and taking a chair, ‘nobody will bother much about me.’
‘Eh!’ queried the doctor, sharply, sitting up. ‘Paris — friends — relations.’
‘My only relation is an aunt with a large family; she’s got quite enough to do looking after them, without bothering about me,’ retorted M. Vandeloup; ‘as to friends — I haven’t got one.’
‘Oh!’ from Gollipeck, with a cynical smile, ‘I see; let us say — acquaintances.’
‘Won’t make any difference,’ replied Vandeloup, airily; ‘I turned my acquaintances into friends long ago, and then borrowed money off them; result: my social circle is nil. Friends,’ went on M. Vandeloup, reflectively, ‘are excellent as friends, but damnable as bankers.’
Gollipeck chuckled, and rubbed his hands, for this cynicism pleased him. Suddenly his eye caught the book which the young man had returned.
‘You read this?’ he said, laying his hand on it; ‘good, eh?’
‘Very good, indeed,’ returned M. Vandeloup, smoothly; ‘so kind of you to have lent it to me — all those cases quoted were known to me.’
‘The case of Adele Blondet, for instance, eh?’ asked the old man sharply.
‘Yes, I was present at the trial,’ replied Vandeloup, quietly; ‘the prisoner Octave Braulard was convicted, condemned to death, reprieved, and sent to New Caledonia.’
‘Where he now is,’ said Gollipeck, quickly, looking at him.
‘I presume so,’ replied Vandeloup, lazily. ‘After the trial I never bothered my head about him.’
‘He poisoned his mistress, Adele Blondet,’ said the doctor.
‘Yes,’ answered Vandeloup, leaning forward and looking at Gollipeck, ‘he found she was in love with an Englishman, and poisoned her — you will find it all in the book.’
‘It does not mention the Englishman,’ said the doctor, thoughtfully tapping the table with his hand.
‘Nevertheless he was implicated in it, but went away from Paris the day Braulard was arrested,’ answered Vandeloup. ‘The police tried to find him, but could not; if they had, it might have made some difference to the prisoner.’
‘And the name of this Englishman?’
‘Let me see,’ said Vandeloup, looking up reflectively; ‘I almost forget it — Kestroke or Kestrike, some name like that. He must have been a very clever man to have escaped the French police.’
‘Ah, hum!’ said the doctor, rubbing his nose, ‘very interesting indeed; strange case!’
‘Very,’ assented M. Vandeloup, as he arose to go, ‘I must say good-bye now, doctor; but I am coming up to Ballarat on a visit shortly.’
‘Ah, hum! of course,’ replied Gollipeck, also rising, ‘and we can have another talk over this book.’
‘That or any book you like,’ said Vandeloup, with a glance of surprise; ‘but I don’t see why you are so much taken up with that volume; it is not a work of genius.’
‘Well, no,’ answered Gollipeck, looking at him; ‘still, it contains some excellent cases of modern poisoning.’
‘So I saw when I read it,’ returned Vandeloup, indifferently. ‘Good-bye,’ holding out his hand, ‘or rather I should say au revoir.’
‘Wine?’ queried the Doctor, hospitably.
Vandeloup shook his head, and walked out of the room with a gay smile, humming a tune. He strolled slowly down Lydiard Street, turning over in his mind what the doctor had said to him.
‘He is suspicious,’ muttered the young man to himself, thoughtfully, ‘although he has nothing to go on in connecting me with the case. Should I use the poison here I must be careful, for that man will be my worst enemy.’
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turning round saw Barty Jarper before him. That fashionable young man was in evening dress, and represented such an extent of shirt front and white waistcoat — not to mention a tall collar, on the top of which his little head was perched like a cocoanut on a stick — that he was positively resplendent.
‘Where are you going to?’ asked the gorgeous Barty, smoothing his incipient moustache.
‘Well, I really don’t know,’ answered Vandeloup, lighting a cigarette. ‘I am leaving for Melbourne to-morrow morning, but to-night I have nothing to do. You, I see, are engaged,’ with a glance at the evening dress.
‘Yes,’ returned Barty, in a bored voice; ‘musical party on — they want me to sing.’
Vandeloup had heard Barty’s vocal performance, and could not forbear a smile as he thought of the young man’s three songs with the same accompaniment to each. Suppressing, however, his inclination to laugh, he asked Barty to have a drink, which invitation was promptly accepted, and they walked in search of a hotel. On the way, they passed Slivers’ house, and here Vandeloup paused.
‘This was the first house I entered here,’ he said to Barty, ‘and I must go in and say good-bye to my one-armed friend with the cockatoo.’
Mr Jarper, however, drew back.
‘I don’t like him,’ he said bluntly, ‘he’s an old devil.’
‘Oh, it’s always as well to accustom oneself to the society of devils,’ retorted Vandeloup, coolly, ‘we may have to live with them constantly some day.’
Barty laughed at this, and putting his arm in that of Vandeloup’s, they went in.
Slivers’ door stood ajar in its usual hospitable manner, but all within was dark.
‘He must be out,’ said Barty, as they stood in the dark passage.
‘No,’ replied Vandeloup, feeling for a match, ‘someone is talking in the office.’
‘It’s that parrot,’ said Barty, with a laugh, as they heard Billy rapidly running over his vocabulary; ‘let’s go in.’
He pushed open the door, and was about to step into the room, when catching sight of something on the floor, he recoiled with a cry, and caught Vandeloup by the arm.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked the Frenchman, hastily.
‘He’s dead,’ returned Barty, with a sort of gasp; ‘see, he’s lying on the floor dead!’
And so he was! The oldest inhabitant of Ballarat had joined the great majority, and, as it was afterwards discovered, his death was caused by the breaking of a blood-vessel. The cause of it was not clear, but the fact was, that hearing of the discovery of the Devil’s Lead, and knowing that it was lost to him for ever, Slivers had fallen into such a fit of rage, that he burst a blood-vessel and died in his office with no one by him.
The light of the street lamp shone through the dusty windows into the dark room, and in the centre of the yellow splash lay the dead man, with his one eye wide open, staring at the ceiling, while perched on his wooden leg, which was sticking straight out, sat the parrot, swearing. It was a most repulsive sight, and Barty, with a shudder of disgust, tried to drag his companion away, but M. Vandeloup refused to go, and searched his pockets for a match to see more clearly what the body was like.
‘Pickles,’ cried Billy, from his perch on the dead man’s wooden leg; ‘oh, my precious mother — devil take him.’
‘My faith,’ said M. Vandeloup, striking a match, ‘the devil has taken him,’ and leaving Barty shivering and trembling at the door, he advanced into the room and stood looking at the body. Billy at his approach hopped off the leg and waddled up to the dead man’s shoulder, where he sat cursing volubly, and every now and then going into shrieks of demoniacal laughter. Barty closed his ears to the devilish mirth, and saw M. Vandeloup standing over the corpse, with the faint light of the match flickering in his hand.
‘Do you know what this is?’ he asked, turning to Barty.
The other looked at him inquiringly.
‘It is the comedy of death,’ said the Frenchman, throwing down the match and going to the door.
They both went out to seek assistance, and left the dark room with the dead man lying in the pool of yellow light, and the parrot perched on the body, muttering to itself. It was a strange mingling of the horrible and grotesque, and the whole scene was hit off in the phrase applied to it by Vandeloup. It was, indeed, ‘The Comedy of Death’!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09