Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

Chapter IX

A Professional Philanthropist

We have professional diners-out, professional beauties, professional Christians, then why not professional philanthropists? This brilliant century of ours has nothing to do with the word charity, as it savours too much of stealthy benevolence, so it has substituted in its place the long word philanthropy, which is much more genteel and comprehensive. Charity, the meekest of the Christian graces, has been long since dethroned, and her place is taken by the blatant braggard Philanthropy, who does his good deeds in a most ostentatious manner, and loudly invites the world to see his generosity, and praise him for it. Charity, modestly hooded, went into the houses of the poor, and tendered her gifts with smiles. Philanthropy now builds almshouses and hospitals, and rails at poverty if it has too much pride to occupy them. And what indeed, has poverty to do with pride? — it’s far too sumptuous and expensive an article, and can only be possessed by the rich, who can afford to wear it because it is paid for. Mr Meddlechip was rich, so he bought a large stock of pride, and wore it everywhere. It was not personal pride — he was not good-looking; it was not family pride — he never had a grandfather; nor was it pecuniary pride — he had too much money for that. But it was a mean, sneaking, insinuating pride that wrapped him round like a cloak, and pretended to be very humble, and only holding its money in trust for the poor. The poor ye have always with you — did not Mr Meddlechip know it? Ask the old men and women in the almshouses, and they would answer yes; but ask the squalid inhabitants of the slums, and they would probably say, ‘Meddlechip, ‘o’s ‘e?’ Not that the great Ebenezer Meddlechip was unknown — oh, dear, no — he was a representative colonial; he sat in Parliament, and frequently spoke at those enlarged vestry meetings about the prosperity of the country. He laid foundation stones. He took the chair at public meetings. In fact, he had his finger in every public pie likely to bring him into notoriety; but not in private pies, oh, dear, no; he never did good by stealth and blush to find it fame. Any blushes he might have had would have been angry ones at his good deed not being known.

He had come in the early days of the colony, and made a lot of money, being a shrewd man, and one who took advantage of every tide in the affairs of men. He was honest, that is honest as our present elastic acceptation of the word goes — and when he had accumulated a fortune he set to work to buy a few things. He bought a grand house at Toorak, then he bought a wife to do the honours of the grand house, and when his domestic affairs were quite settled, he bought popularity, which is about the cheapest thing anyone can buy. When the Society for the Supplying of Aborigines with White Waistcoats was started he headed the list with one thousand pounds — bravo, Meddlechip! The Secretary of the Band of Hard-up Matrons asked him for fifty pounds, and got five hundred — generous Meddlechip! And at the meeting of the Society for the Suppression of Vice among Married Men he gave two thousand pounds, and made a speech on the occasion, which made all the married men present tremble lest their sins should find them out-noble Meddlechip! He would give thousands away in public charity, have it well advertised in the newspapers, and then wonder, with humility, how the information got there; and he would give a poor woman in charge for asking for a penny, on the ground that she was a vagrant. Here, indeed, was a man for Victoria to be proud of; put up a statue to him in the centre of the city; let all the school children study a list of his noble actions as lessons; let the public at large grovel before him, and lick the dust of his benevolent shoes, for he is a professional philanthropist.

Mrs Meddlechip, large, florid, and loud-voiced, was equally as well known as her husband, but in a different way. He posed as benevolence, she was the type of all that’s fashionable — that is, she knew everyone; gave large parties, went out to balls, theatres, and lawn tennis, and dressed in the very latest style, whether it suited her or not. She had been born and brought up in the colonies, but when her husband went to London as a representative colonial she went also, and stayed there a whole year, after which she came out to her native land and ran everything down in the most merciless manner. They did not do this in England — oh! dear no! nothing so common — the people in Melbourne had such dreadfully vulgar manners; but then, of course, they are not English; there was no aristocracy; even the dogs and horses were different; they had not the stamp of centuries of birth and breeding on them. In fact, to hear Mrs Meddlechip talk one would think that England was a perfect aristocratic paradise, and Victoria a vulgar — other place. She totally ignored the marvellously rapid growth of the country, and that the men and women in it were actually the men and women who had built it up year by year, so that even now it was taking its place among the nations of the earth. But Mrs Meddlechip was far too ladylike and fashionable for troubling about such things — oh dear, no — she left all these dry facts to Ebenezer, who could speak about them in his own pompous, blatant style at public meetings.

This lady was one of those modern inventions known as a frisky matron, and said and did all manner of dreadful things, which people winked at because — she was Mrs Meddlechip, and eccentric. She had a young man always dangling after her at theatres and dances — sometimes one, sometimes another, but there was one who was a fixture. This was Barty Jarper, who acted as her poodle dog, and fetched and carried for her in the most amiable manner. When any new poodle dog came on the scene Barty would meekly resign his position, and retire into the background until such time as he was whistled back again to go through his antics. Barty attended her everywhere, made up her programmes, wrote out her invitations, danced with whosoever he was told, and was rewarded for all these services by being given the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Mr Jarper had a meek little way with Mrs Meddlechip, as if he was constantly apologising for having dared to have come into the world without her permission, but to other people he was rude enough, and in his own mean little soul looked upon himself quite as a man of fashion. How he managed to go about as he did was a standing puzzle to his friends, as he got only a small salary at the Hibernian Bank; yet he was to be seen at balls, theatres, tennis parties; constantly driving about in hansoms; in fact, lived as if he had an independent income. The general opinion was that he was supplied with money by Mrs Meddlechip, while others said he gambled; and, indeed, Barty was rather clever at throwing sixes, and frequently at the Bachelors’ Club won a sufficient sum to give him a new suit of clothes or pay his club subscription for the year. He was one of those bubbles which dance on the surface of society, yet are sure to vanish some day, and if God tempered the wind to any particular shorn lamb, that shorn lamb was Barty Jarper.

The Meddlechips were giving a ball, therefore the mansion at Toorak was brilliantly illuminated and crowded with fashionable people. The ball-room was at the side of the house, and from it French windows opened on to a wide verandah, which was enclosed with drapery and hung with many-coloured Chinese lanterns. Beyond this the smooth green lawns stretched away to a thick fringe of trees, which grew beside the fence and screened the Meddlechip residence from the curious gaze of vulgar eyes.

Kitty came under the guardianship of Mrs Riller, a young matron with dark hair, an imperious manner, and a young man always at her heels. Mrs Villiers intended to have come, but at the last moment was seized with one of her nervous fits, so decided to stop at home with Selina for company. Kitty, therefore, accompanied Mrs Riller to the ball, but the guardianship of that lady was more nominal than anything else, as she went off with Mr Bellthorp after introducing Kitty to Mrs Meddlechip, and flirted and danced with him the whole evening. Kitty, however, did not in the least mind being left to her own devices, for being an extremely pretty girl she soon had plenty of young men round her anxious to be introduced. She filled her programme rapidly and kept two valses for Vandeloup, as she knew he was going to be present, but he as yet had not made his appearance.

He arrived about a quarter past ten o’clock, and was strolling leisurely up to the house, when he saw Pierre, standing amid a number of idlers at the gate. The dumb man stepped forward, and Vandeloup paused with a smile on his handsome lips, though he was angry enough at the meeting.

‘Money again, I suppose?’ he said to Pierre, in a low voice, in French; ‘don’t trouble me now, but come to my rooms to-morrow.’

The dumb man nodded, and Vandeloup walked leisurely up the path. Then Pierre followed him right up to the steps which led to the house, saw him enter the brilliantly-lighted hall, and then hid himself in the shrubs which grew on the edge of the lawn. There, in close hiding, he could hear the sound of music and voices, and could see the door of the fernery wide open, and caught glimpses of dainty dresses and bare shoulders within.

Vandeloup, quite ignorant that his friend was watching the house, put on his gloves leisurely, and walked in search of his hostess.

Mrs Meddlechip glanced approvingly at Vandeloup as he came up, for he was extremely good-looking, and good-looking men were Mrs Meddlechip’s pet weakness. Barty was in attendance on his liege lady, and when he saw how she admired Vandeloup, he foresaw he would be off duty for some time. It would be Vandeloup promoted vice Jarper resigned, but Barty very well knew that Gaston was not a man to conduct himself like a poodle dog, so came to the conclusion he would be retained for use and M. Vandeloup for ornament. Meanwhile, he left Mrs Meddlechip to cultivate the acquaintance of the young Frenchman, and went off with a red-haired girl to the supper-room. Red-haired girl, who was remarkably ugly and self-complacent, had been a wallflower all the evening, but thought none the less of herself on that account. She assured Barty she was not hungry, but when she finished supper Mr Jarper was very glad, for the supper’s sake, she had no appetite.

‘She’s the hungriest girl I ever met in my life,’ he said to Bellthorp afterwards; ‘ate up everything I gave her, and drank so much lemonade, I thought she’d go up like a balloon.’

When Barty had satisfied the red-haired girl’s appetite — no easy matter — he left her to play wallflower and make spiteful remarks on the girls who were dancing, and took out another damsel, who smiled and smiled, and trod on his toes when he danced, till he wished her in Jericho. He asked if she was hungry, but, unlike the other girl, she was not; he said she must be tired, but oh, dear no, she was quite fresh; so she danced the whole waltz through and bumped Barty against everyone in the room; then said his step did not suit hers, which exasperated him so much — for Barty flattered himself on his waltzing — that he left her just as she was getting up a flirtation, and went to have a glass of champagne to soothe his feelings. Released from Mrs Meddlechip, Gaston went in search of Kitty, and found her flirting with Felix Rolleston, who was amusing her with his gay chatter.

‘This is a deuced good-looking chappie,’ said Mr Rolleston, fixing his eyeglass in his eye and looking critically at Gaston as he approached them; ‘M. Vandeloup, isn’t it?’

Kitty said it was.

‘Oh! yes,’ went on Felix, brightly, ‘saw him about town — don’t know him personally; awfully like a fellow I once knew called Fitzgerald — Brian Fitzgerald — married now and got a family; funny thing, married Miss Frettlby, who used to live in your house.’

‘Oh! that hansom cab murder,’ said Kitty, looking at him, ‘I’ve heard all about that.’

‘Egad! I should think you had,’ observed Mr Rolleston, with a grin, ‘it was a nine days’ wonder; but here’s your friend, introduce me, pray,’ as Vandeloup came up.

Kitty did so, and Felix improved the occasion.

‘Knew you by sight,’ he said, shaking hands with Gaston, ‘but it’s a case of we never speak as we pass by, and all that sort of thing — come and look me up,’ hospitably, ‘South Yarra.’

‘Delighted,’ said Gaston, smoothly, taking Kitty’s programme and putting his name down for the two vacant waltzes.

‘Reciprocal, I assure you,’ said the lively Felix. ‘Oh, by Jove! excuse me, Miss Marchurst — there’s a polka — got to dance with a girl — you’ll see me in a minute — she’s a maypole — I’m not, ha! ha! You’ll say it’s the long and the short of it — ta-ta at present.’

He hopped off gaily, and they soon saw him steering the maypole round the room, or rather, the maypole steered Felix, for her idea of the dance was to let Felix skip gaily round her; then she lifted him up and put him down a few feet further on, when he again skipped, and so the performance went on, to the intense amusement of Kitty and Gaston.

‘My faith!’ said Vandeloup, satirically, dropping into a seat beside Kitty, ‘she is a maypole, and he’s a merry peasant dancing round it. By the way, Bebe, why isn’t Madame here to-night?’

‘She’s not well,’ replied Kitty, unfurling her fan; ‘I don’t know what’s come over her, she’s so nervous.’

‘Oh! indeed,’ said Vandeloup, politely; ‘Hum! — still afraid of her husband turning up,’ he said to himself, as Kitty was carried away for a valse by Mr Bellthorp; ‘how slow all this is?’ he went on, yawning, and rising from his seat; ‘I shan’t stay long, or that old woman will be seizing me again. Poor Kestrike, surely his sin has been punished enough in having such a wife,’ and M. Vandeloup strolled away to speak to Mrs Riller, who, being bereft of Bellthorp, was making signals to him with her fan.

Barty Jarper had been hard at work all night on the poodle-dog system, and had danced with girls who could not dance, and talked with girls that could not talk, so, as a reward for his work, he promised himself a dance with Kitty. At the beginning of the evening he had secured a dance from her, and now, all his duties for the evening being over, he went to get it. Bellthorp had long since returned to Mrs Riller and flirtation, and Kitty had been dancing with a tall young man, with unsteady legs and an eye-glass that would not stick in his eye. She did not particularly care about Mr Jarper, with his effeminate little ways, but was quite glad when he came to carry her off from the unsteady legs and the eye-glass. The dance was the Lancers; but Kitty declared she would not dance it as she felt weary, so made Mr Jarper take her to supper. Barty was delighted, as he was hungry himself, so they secured a pleasant little nook, and Barty foraged for provisions.

‘You know all about this house,’ said Kitty, when she saw how successful the young man was in getting nice things.

‘Oh, yes,’ murmured Barty, quite delighted, ‘I know most of the houses in Melbourne — I know yours.’

‘Mrs Villiers’?’ asked Kitty.

Barty nodded.

‘Used to go down there a lot when Mr Frettlby lived there,’ he said, sipping his wine. ‘I know every room in it.’

‘You’d be invaluable as a burglar,’ said Kitty, a little contemptuously, as she looked at his slim figure.

‘I dare say,’ replied Barty, who took the compliment in good faith. ‘Some night I’ll climb up to your room and give you a fright.’

‘Shows how much you know,’ retorted Miss Marchurst. ‘My room is next to Madame’s on the ground floor.’

‘I know,’ said Barty, sagely, nodding his head. ‘It used to be a boudoir — nice little room. By the way, where is Mrs Villiers to-night?’

‘She’s not well,’ replied Kitty, yawning behind her fan, for she was weary of Barty and his small talk. ‘She’s very worried.’

‘Over money matters, I suppose?’

Kitty laughed and shook her head.

‘Hardly,’ she answered.

‘I dare say,’ replied Barty, ‘she’s awfully rich. You know, I’m in the bank where her account is, and I know all about her. Rich! oh, she is rich! Lucky thing for that French fellow if he marries her.’

‘Marries her?’ echoed Kitty, her face growing pale. ‘M. Vandeloup?’

‘Yes,’ replied Barty, pleased at having made a sensation. ‘Her first husband has vanished, you know, and all the fellows are laying bets about Van marrying the grass widow.’

‘What nonsense!’ said Kitty, in an agitated voice. ‘M. Vandeloup is her friend — nothing more.’

Barty grinned.

‘I’ve seen so much of that “friendship, and nothing more”, business,’ he said, significantly, whereupon Kitty rose to her feet.

‘I’m tired,’ she said, coldly. ‘Kindly take me to Mrs Riller.’

‘I’ve put my foot into it,’ thought Jarper, as he led her away. ‘I believe she’s spoons on Van herself.’

Mrs Riller was not very pleased to see Kitty, as Mr Bellthorp was telling her some amusing scandals about her dearest friends, and, of course, had to stop when Kitty came up.

‘Not dancing, dear?’ she asked, with a sympathetic smile, glancing angrily at Bellthorp, who seemed more struck with Kitty than he had any right to be, considering he was her property.

‘No,’ replied Kitty, ‘I’m a little tired.’

‘Miss Marchurst,’ observed Bellthorp, leaning towards her, ‘I’m sure I’ve seen you before.’

Kitty felt a chill running through her veins as she remembered where their last meeting had been. The extremity of the danger gave her courage.

‘I dare say,’ she replied, coldly turning her back on the young man, ‘I’m not invisible.’

Mrs Killer looked with all her eyes, for she wanted to know all about this pretty girl who dropped so unexpectedly into Melbourne society, so she determined to question Bellthorp when she got him alone. To this end she finessed.

‘Oh! there’s that lovely valse,’ she said, as the band struck up ‘One summer’s night in Munich’. ‘If you are not engaged, Mr Bellthorp, we must have a turn.’

‘Delighted,’ replied Bellthorp, languidly offering his arm, but thinking meanwhile, ‘confound these women, how they do work a man.’

‘You, I suppose,’ said Mrs Riller to Kitty, ‘are going to play wallflower.’

‘Hardly,’ observed a cool voice behind them; ‘Miss Marchurst dances this with me — you see, Mrs Riller,’ as that lady turned and saw Vandeloup, ‘she has not your capability at playing wallflower,’ with a significant glance at Bellthorp.

Mrs Riller understood the look, which seemed to pierce into the very depths of her frivolous little soul, and flushed angrily as she moved away with Mr Bellthorp and mentally determined to be even with Vandeloup on the first occasion.

Gaston, quite conscious of the storm he had raised, smiled serenely, and then offered his arm to Kitty, which she refused, as she was determined to find out from his own lips the truth of Jarper’s statement regarding Madame Midas.

‘I don’t want to dance,’ she said curtly, pointing to the seat beside her as an invitation for him to sit down.

‘Pardon me,’ observed Vandeloup, blandly, ‘I do; we can talk afterwards if you like.’

Their eyes met, and then Kitty arose and took his arm, with a charming pout. It was no good fighting against the quiet, masterful manner of this man, so she allowed him to put his arm round her waist and swing her slowly into the centre of the room. ‘One summer’s night in Munich’ was a favourite valse, and everyone who could dance, and a good many who could not, were up on the floor. Every now and then, through the steady beat of the music, came the light laugh of a woman or the deeper tones of a man’s voice; and the glare of the lights, the flashing jewels on the bare necks and arms of women, the soft frou-frou of their dresses, as their partners swung them steadily round, and the subtle perfume of flowers gave an indescribable sensuous flavour to the whole scene. And the valse — who does not know it? with its sad refrain, which comes in every now and then throughout, even in the most brilliant passages. The whole story of a man’s faith and a woman’s treachery is contained therein.

‘One summer’s night in Munich,’ sighed the heavy bass instruments, sadly and reproachfully, ‘I thought your heart was true!’ Listen to the melancholy notes of the prelude which recall the whole scene — do you not remember? The stars are shining, the night wind is blowing, and we are on the terrace looking down on the glittering lights of the city. Hark! that joyous sparkling strain, full of riant laughter, recalls the sad students who wandered past, and then from amid the airy ripple of notes comes the sweet, mellow strain of the ‘cello, which tells of love eternal amid the summer roses; how the tender melody sweeps on full of the perfume and mystic meanings of that night. Hark! is that the nightingale in the trees, or only the silvery notes of a violin, which comes stealing through the steady throb and swing of the heavier stringed instruments? Ah! why does the rhythm stop? A few chords breaking up the dream, the sound of a bugle calling you away, and the valse goes into the farewell motif with its tender longing and passionate anguish. Good-bye! you will be true? Your heart is mine, good-bye, sweetheart! Stop! that discord of angry notes — she is false to her soldier lover! The stars are pale, the nightingale is silent, the rose leaves fall, and the sad refrain comes stealing through the room again with its bitter reproach, ‘One summer’s night in Munich I knew your heart was false.’

Kitty danced for a little time, but was too much agitated to enjoy the valse, in spite of the admirable partner M. Vandeloup made. She was determined to find out the truth, so stopped abruptly, and insisted on Vandeloup taking her to the conservatory.

‘What for?’ he asked, as they threaded their way through the crowded room. ‘Is it important?’

‘Very,’ she replied, looking straight at him; ‘it is essential to our comedy.’

M. Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.

‘My faith!’ he murmured, as they entered the fernery; ‘this comedy is becoming monotonous.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55