Owing to the quiet life Kitty had led since she came to Melbourne, and the fact that her appearance on the stage had taken place in the country, she felt quite safe when making her appearance in Melbourne society that no one would recognise her or know anything of her past life. It was unlikely she would meet with any of the Pulchop family again, and she knew Mr Wopples would hold his tongue regarding his first meeting with her, so the only one who could reveal anything about her would be Vandeloup, and he would certainly be silent for his own sake, as she knew he valued the friendship of Madame Midas too much to lose it. Nevertheless she awaited his coming in considerable trepidation, as she was still in love with him, and was nervous as to what reception she would meet with. Perhaps now that she occupied a position as Mrs Villiers’ adopted daughter he would marry her, but, at all events, when she met him she would know exactly how he felt towards her by his demeanour.
Vandeloup, on the other hand, was quite unaware of the surprise in store for him, and thought that the old friend he was to meet would be some Ballarat acquaintance of his own and Madame’s. In his wildest flight of fancy he never thought it would be Kitty, else his cool nonchalance would for once have been upset at the thought of the two women he was interested in being under the same roof. However, where ignorance is bliss — well M. Vandeloup, after dressing himself carefully in evening dress, put on his hat and coat, and, the evening being a pleasant one, thought he would stroll through the Fitzroy Gardens down to the station.
It was pleasant in the gardens under the golden light of the sunset, and the green arcades of trees looked delightfully cool after the glare of the dusty streets. Vandeloup, strolling along idly, felt a touch on his shoulder and wheeled round suddenly, for with his past life ever before him he always had a haunting dread of being recaptured.
The man, however, who had thus drawn his attention was none other than Pierre Lemaire, who stood in the centre of the broad asphalt path, dirty, ragged and disreputable-looking. He had not altered much since he left Ballarat, save that he looked more dilapidated-looking, but stood there in his usual sullen manner, with his hat drawn down over his eyes. Some stray wisps of grass showed that he had been camping out all the hot day on the green turf under the shadow of the trees, and it was easy to see from his appearance what a vagrant he was. Vandeloup was annoyed at the meeting and cast a rapid look around to see if he was observed. The few people, however, passing were too intent on their own business to give more than a passing glance at the dusty tramp and the young man in evening dress talking to him, so Vandeloup was reassured.
‘Well, my friend,’ he said, sharply, to the dumb man, ‘what do you want?’
Pierre put his hand in his pocket.
‘Oh, of course,’ replied M. Vandeloup, mockingly, ‘money, money, always money; do you think I’m a bank, always to be drawn on like this?’
The dumb man made no sign that he had heard, but stood sullenly rocking himself to and fro an’d chewing a wisp of the grass he had picked off his coat.
‘Here,’ said the young man, taking out a sovereign and giving it to Pierre; ‘take this just now and don’t bother me, or upon my word,’ with a disdainful look, ‘I shall positively have to hand you over to the law.’
Pierre glanced up suddenly, and Vandeloup caught the gleam of his eyes under the shadow of the hat.
‘Oh! you think it will be dangerous for me,’ he said, in a gay tone; ‘not at all, I assure you. I am a gentleman, and rich; you are a pauper, and disreputable. Who will believe your word against mine? My faith! your assurance is quite refreshing. Now, go away, and don’t trouble me again, or,’ with a sudden keen glance, ‘I will do as I say.’
He nodded coolly to the dumb man, and strode gaily along under the shade of the heavily foliaged oaks, while Pierre looked at the sovereign, slipped it into his pocket, and slouched off in the opposite direction without even a glance at his patron.
At the top of the street Vandeloup stepped into a cab, and telling the man to drive to the St Kilda Station, in Elizabeth Street, went off into a brown study. Pierre annoyed him seriously, as he never seemed to get rid of him, and the dumb man kept turning up every now and then like the mummy at the Egyptian feast to remind him of unpleasant things.
‘Confound him!’ muttered Vandeloup, angrily, as he alighted at the station and paid the cabman, ‘he’s more trouble than Bebe was; she did take the hint and go, but this man, my faith!’ shrugging his shoulders, ‘he’s the devil himself for sticking.’
All the way down to St Kilda his reflections were of the same unpleasant nature, and he cast about in his own mind how he could get rid of this pertinacious friend. He could not turn him off openly, as Pierre might take offence, and as he knew more of M. Vandeloup’s private life than that young gentleman cared about, it would not do to run the risk of an exposure.
‘There’s only one thing to be done,’ said Gaston, quietly, as he walked down to Mrs Villiers’ house; ‘I will try my luck at marrying Madame Midas; if she consents, we can go away to Europe as man and wife; if she does not I will go to America, and, in either case, Pierre will lose trace of me.’
With this comfortable reflection he went into the house and was shown into the drawing room by the servant. There were no lights in the room, as it was not sufficiently dark for them, and Vandeloup smiled as he saw a fire in the grate.
‘My faith!’ he said to himself, ‘Madame is as chilly as ever.’
The servant had retired, and he was all by himself in this large room, with the subdued twilight all through it, and the flicker of the flames on the ceiling. He went to the fire more from habit than anything else, and suddenly came on a big armchair, drawn up close to the side, in which a woman was sitting.
‘Ah! the sleeping beauty,’ said Vandeloup, carelessly; ‘in these cases the proper thing to do in order to wake the lady is to kiss her.’
He was, without doubt, an extremely audacious young man, and though he did not know who the young lady was, would certainly have put his design into execution, had not the white figure suddenly rose and confronted him. The light from the fire was fair on her face, and with a sudden start Vandeloup saw before him the girl he had ruined and deserted.
‘Bebe?’ he gasped, recoiling a step.
‘Yes!’ said Kitty, in an agitated tone, ‘your mistress and your victim.’
‘Bah!’ said Gaston, coolly, having recovered from the first shock of surprise. ‘That style suits Sarah Bernhardt, not you, my dear. The first act of this comedy is excellent, but it is necessary the characters should know one another in order to finish the play.’
‘Ah!’ said Kitty, with a bitter smile, ‘do I not know you too well, as the man who promised me marriage and then broke his word? You forgot all your vows to me.’
‘My dear child,’ replied Gaston leisurely, leaning up against the mantelpiece, ‘if you had read Balzac you would discover that he says, “Life would be intolerable without a certain amount of forgetting.” I must say,’ smiling, ‘I agree with the novelist.’
Kitty looked at him as he stood there cool and complacent, and threw herself back into the chair angrily.
‘Just the same,’ she muttered restlessly, ‘just the same.’
‘Of course,’ replied Vandeloup, raising his eyebrows in surprise. ‘You have only been away from me six weeks, and it takes longer than that to alter any one. By the way,’ he went on smoothly, ‘how have you been all this time? I have no doubt your tour has been as adventurous as that of Gil Bias.’
‘No, it has not,’ replied Kitty, clenching her hands. ‘You never cared what became of me, and had not Mr Wopples met me in the street on that fearful night, God knows where I would have been now.’
‘I can tell you,’ said Gaston, coolly, taking a seat. ‘With me. You would have soon got tired of the poverty of the streets, and come back to your cage.’
‘My cage, indeed!’ she echoed, bitterly, tapping the ground with her foot. ‘Yes, a cage, though it was a gilded one.’
‘How Biblical you are getting,’ said the young man, ironically; ‘but kindly stop speaking in parables, and tell me what position we are to occupy to each other. As formerly?’
‘My God, no!’ she flashed out suddenly.
‘So much the better,’ he answered, bowing. ‘We will obliterate the last year from our memories, and I will meet you to-night for the first time since you left Ballarat. Of course,’ he went on, rather anxiously, ‘you have told Madame nothing?’
‘Only what suited me,’ replied the girl, coldly, stung by the coldness and utter heartlessness of this man.
‘Oh!’ with a smile. ‘Did it include my name?’
‘Ah!’ with a long indrawn breath, ‘you are more sensible than I gave you credit for.’
Kitty rose to her feet and crossed rapidly over to where he sat calm and smiling.
‘Gaston Vandeloup!’ she hissed in his ear, while her face was quite distorted by the violence of her passion, ‘when I met you I was an innocent girl — you ruined me, and then cast me off as soon as you grew weary of your toy. I thought you loved me, and,’ with a stifled sob, ‘God help me, I love you still.’
‘Yes, my Bebe,’ he said, in a caressing tone, taking her hand.
‘No! no,’ she cried, wrenching them away, while an angry spot of colour glowed on her cheek, ‘I loved you as you were — not as you are now — we are done with sentiment, M. Vandeloup,’ she said, sneering, ‘and now our relations to one another will be purely business ones.’
He bowed and smiled.
‘So glad you understand the position,’ he said, blandly; ‘I see the age of miracles is not yet past when a woman can talk sense.’
‘You won’t disturb me with your sneers,’ retorted the girl, glaring fiercely at him out of the gathering gloom in the room; ‘I am not the innocent girl I once was.’
‘It is needless to tell me that,’ he said, coarsely.
She drew herself up at the extreme insult.
‘Have a care, Gaston,’ she muttered, hurriedly, ‘I know more about your past life than you think.’
He rose from his seat and approached his face, now white as her own, to hers.
‘What do you know?’ he asked, in a low, passionate voice.
‘Enough to be dangerous to you,’ she retorted, defiantly.
They both looked at one another steadily, but the white face of the woman did not blench before the scintillations of his eyes.
‘What you know I don’t know,’ he said, steadily; ‘but whatever it is, keep it to yourself, or — ’ catching her wrist.
‘Or what?’ she asked, boldly.
He threw her away from him with a laugh, and the sombre fire died out of his eyes.
‘Bah!’ he said, gaily, ‘our comedy is turning into a tragedy; I am as foolish as you; I think,’ significantly, ‘we understand one another.’
‘Yes, I think we do,’ she answered, calmly, the colour coming back to her cheek. ‘Neither of us are to refer to the past, and we both go on our different roads unhindered.’
‘Mademoiselle Marchurst,’ said Vandeloup, ceremoniously, ‘I am delighted to meet you after a year’s absence — come,’ with a gay laugh, ‘let us begin the comedy thus, for here,’ he added quickly, as the door opened, ‘here comes the spectators.’
‘Well, young people,’ said Madame’s voice, as she came slowly into the room, ‘you are all in the dark; ring the bell for lights, M. Vandeloup.’
‘Certainly, Madame,’ he answered, touching the electric button, ‘Miss Marchurst and myself were renewing our former friendship.’
‘How do you think she is looking?’ asked Madame, as the servant came in and lit the gas.
‘Charming,’ replied Vandeloup, looking at the dainty little figure in white standing under the blaze of the chandelier; ‘she is more beautiful than ever.’
Kitty made a saucy little curtsey, and burst into a musical laugh.
‘He is just the same, Madame,’ she said merrily to the tall, grave woman in black velvet, who stood looking at her affectionately, ‘full of compliments, and not meaning one; but when is dinner to be ready?’ pathetically, ‘I’m dying of starvation.’
‘I hope you have peaches, Madame,’ said Vandeloup, gaily; ‘the first time I met Mademoiselle she was longing for peaches.’
‘I am unchanged in that respect,’ retorted Kitty, brightly; ‘I adore peaches still.’
‘I am just waiting for Mr Calton,’ said Madame Midas, looking at her watch; ‘he ought to be here by now.’
‘Is that the lawyer, Madame?’ asked Vandeloup.
‘Yes,’ she replied, quietly, ‘he is a most delightful man.’
‘So I have heard,’ answered Vandeloup, nonchalantly, ‘and he had something to do with a former owner of this house, I think.’
‘Oh, don’t talk of that,’ said Mrs Villiers, nervously; ‘the first time I took the house, I heard all about the Hansom Cab murder.’
‘Why, Madame, you are not nervous,’ said Kitty, gaily.
‘No, my dear,’ replied the elder, quietly, ‘but I must confess that for some reason or another I have been a little upset since coming here; I don’t like being alone.’
‘You shall never be that,’ said Kitty, fondly nestling to her.
‘Thank you, puss,’ said Madame, tapping her cheek; ‘but I am nervous,’ she said, rapidly; ‘at night especially. Sometimes I have to get Selina to come into my room and stay all night.’
‘Madame Midas nervous,’ thought Vandeloup to himself; ‘then I can guess the reason; she is afraid of her husband coming back to her.’
Just at this moment the servant announced Mr Calton, and he entered, with his sharp, incisive face, looking clever and keen.
‘I must apologise for being late, Mrs Villiers,’ he said, shaking hands with his hostess; ‘but business, you know, the pleasure of business.’
‘Now,’ said Madame, quickly, ‘I hope you have come to the business of pleasure.’
‘Very epigrammatic, my dear lady,’ said Calton, in his high, clear voice; ‘pray introduce me.’
Madame did so, and they all went to dinner, Madame with Calton and Kitty following with Vandeloup.
‘This,’ observed Calton, when they were all seated at the dinner table, ‘is the perfection of dining; for we are four, and the guests, according to an epicure, should never be less than the Graces nor greater than the Muses.’
And a very merry little dinner it was. All four were clever talkers, and Vandeloup and Calton being pitted against one another, excelled themselves; witty remarks, satirical sayings, and well-told stories were constantly coming from their lips, and they told their stories as their own and did not father them on Sydney Smith.
‘If Sydney Smith was alive,’ said Calton, in reference to this, ‘he would be astonished at the number of stories he did not tell.’
‘Yes,’ chimed in Vandeloup, gaily, ‘and astounded at their brilliancy.’
‘After all,’ said Madame, smiling, ‘he’s a sheet-anchor for some people; for the best original story may fail, a dull one ascribed to Sydney Smith must produce a laugh.’
‘Why?’ asked Kitty, in some wonder.
‘Because,’ explained Calton, gravely, ‘society goes mainly by tradition, and our grandmothers having laughed at Sydney Smith’s jokes, they must necessarily be amusing. Depend upon it, jokes can be sanctified by time quite as much as creeds.’
‘They are more amusing, at all events,’ said Madame, satirically. ‘Creeds generally cause quarrels.’
Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.
‘And quarrels generally cause stories,’ he said, smiling; ‘it is the law of compensation.’
They then went to the drawing-room and Kitty and Vandeloup both sang, and treated one another in a delightfully polite way. Madame Midas and Calton were both clever, but how much cleverer were the two young people at the piano.
‘Are you going to Meddlechip’s ball?’ said Calton to Madame.
‘Oh, yes,’ she answered, nodding her head, ‘I and Miss Marchurst are both going.’
‘Who is Mr Meddlechip?’ asked Kitty, swinging round on the piano-stool.
‘He is the most charitable man in Melbourne,’ said Gaston, with a faint sneer.
‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians,’ said Calton, mockingly. ‘Because Mr Meddlechip suffers from too much money, and has to get rid of it to prevent himself being crushed like Tarpeia by the Sabine shields, he is called charitable.’
‘He does good, though, doesn’t he?’ asked Madame.
‘See advertisement,’ scoffed Calton. ‘Oh, yes! he will give thousands of pounds for any public object, but private charity is a waste of money in his eyes.’
‘You are very hard on him,’ said Madame Midas, with a laugh.
‘Ah! Mr Calton believes as I do,’ cried Vandeloup, ‘that it’s no good having friends unless you’re privileged to abuse them.’
‘It’s one you take full advantage of, then,’ observed Kitty, saucily.
‘I always take what I can get,’ he returned, mockingly; whereon she shivered, and Calton saw it.
‘Ah!’ said that astute reader of character to himself, ‘there’s something between those two. ‘Gad! I’ll cross-examine my French friend.’
They said good-night to the ladies, and walked to the St Kilda station, from thence took the train to town, and Calton put into force his cross-examination. He might as well have tried his artful questions on a rock as on Vandeloup, for that clever young gentleman saw through the barrister at once, and baffled him at every turn with his epigrammatic answers and consummate coolness.
‘I confess,’ said Calton, when they said good-night to one another, ‘I confess you puzzle me.’
‘Language,’ observed M. Vandeloup, with a smile, ‘was given to us to conceal our thoughts. Good night!’
And they parted.
‘The comedy is over for the night,’ thought Gaston as he walked along, ‘and it was so true to nature that the spectators never thought it was art.’
He was wrong, for Calton did.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51