Everyone knows the story of Damocles, and how uncomfortable he felt with the sword suspended by a hair over his head. No one could enjoy their dinner under such circumstances, and it is much to be thankful for that hosts of the present day do not indulge in these practical jokes. But though history does not repeat itself exactly regarding the suspended sword, yet there are cases when a sense of impending misfortune has the same effect on the spirits. This was the case of Madame Midas. She was not by any means of a nervous temperature, yet ever since the disappearance of her husband she was a prey to a secret dread, which, reacting on her nerves, rendered her miserable. Had Mr Villiers only appeared, she would have known how to deal with him, and done so promptly, but it was his absence that made her afraid. Was he dead? If so, why was his body not found; if he was not dead, why did he not reappear on the scene. Allowing, for the sake of argument, that he had stolen the nugget and left the colony in order to enjoy the fruits of his villainy — well, the nugget weighed about three hundred ounces — and that if he disposed of it, as he must have done, it would give him a sum of money a little over one thousand pounds. True, his possession of such a large mass of gold would awake suspicions in the mind of anyone he went to; but then, there were people who were always ready to do shady things, provided they were well paid. So whomsoever he went to would levy blackmail on him on threat of informing the police and having him arrested. Therefore, the most feasible thing would be that he had got about half of the value of the nugget, which would be about six hundred pounds. Say that he did so, a whole year had elapsed, and Madame Midas knew her husband well enough to know that six hundred pounds would soon slip through his fingers, so at the present time he must once more be penniless. If he was, why did he not come back to her and demand more money now she was rich? Even had he gone to a distant place, he would always have kept enough money to pay his way back to Victoria, so that he could wring money out of her. It was this unpleasant feeling of being watched that haunted her and made her uneasy. The constant strain began to tell on her; she became ill and haggard-looking, and her eyes were always glancing around in the anxious manner common to hunted animals. She felt as though she were advancing on a masked battery, and at any moment a shot might strike her from the most unexpected quarter. She tried to laugh off the feeling and blamed herself severely for the morbid state of mind into which she was falling; but it was no use, for by day and night the sense of impending misfortune hung over her like the sword of Damocles, ready to fall at any moment. If her husband would only appear, she would settle an income on him, on condition he ceased to trouble her, but at present she was fighting in the dark with an unknown enemy. She became afraid of being left alone, and even when seated quietly with Selina, would suddenly start and look apprehensively towards the door, as if she heard his footstep. Imagination, when uncontrolled, can keep the mind on a mental rack, to which that of the Inquisition was a bed of roses.
Selina was grieved at this state of things, and tried to argue and comfort her mistress with the most amiable proverbs, but she was quite unable to administer to a mind diseased, and Mrs Villiers’ life became a perfect hell upon earth.
‘Are my troubles never going to end?’ she said to Selina on the night of the Meddlechip ball, as she paced restlessly up and down her room; ‘this man has embittered the whole of my life, and now he is stabbing me in the dark.’
‘Let the dead past bury its dead,’ quoted Selina, who was arranging the room for the night.
‘Pshaw!’ retorted Madame, impatiently, walking to the French window at the end of the room and opening it; ‘how do you know he is dead? Come here, Selina,’ she went on, beckoning to the old woman, and pointing outside to the garden bathed in moonlight; ‘I have always a dread lest he may be watching the house. Even now he may be concealed yonder’— pointing down the garden.
Selina looked out, but could see nothing. There was a smooth lawn, burnt and yellow with the heat, which stretched for about fifty feet, and ended in a low quickset hedge at the foot of a red brick wall which ran down that side of the property. The top of this wall was set with broken bottles, and beyond was the street, where they could hear people passing along. The moonlight rendered all this as light as day, and, as Selina pointed out to her mistress, there was no place where a man could conceal himself. But this did not satisfy Madame; she left the window half open, so that the cool night wind could blow in, and drew together the red velvet curtains which hung there.
‘You’ve left the window open,’ remarked Selina, looking at her mistress, ‘and if you are nervous it will not make you feel safe.’
Madame Midas glanced at the window.
‘It’s so hot,’ she said, plaintively, ‘I will get no sleep. Can’t you manage to fix it up, so that I can leave it open?’
‘I’ll try,’ answered Selina, and she undressed her mistress and put her to bed, then proceeded to fix up a kind of burglar trap. The bed was a four-poster, with heavy crimson curtains, and the top was pushed against the wall, near the window. The curtains of the window and those of the bed prevented any draught blowing in; and directly in front of the window, Selina set a small wood table, so that anyone who tried to enter would throw it over, and thus put the sleeper on the alert. On this she put a night-light, a book, in case Madame should wake up and want to read — a thing she very often did — and a glass of homemade lemonade, for a night drink. Then she locked the other window and drew the curtains, and, after going into Kitty’s room, which opened off the larger one, and fixing up the one window there in the same way, she prepared to retire, but Madame stopped her.
‘You must stay all night with me, Selina,’ she said, irritably. ‘I can’t be left alone.’
‘But, Miss Kitty,’ objected Selina, ‘she’ll expect to be waited for coming home from the ball.’
‘Well, she comes in here to go to her own room,’ said Madame, impatiently; ‘you can leave the door unlocked.’
‘Well,’ observed Miss Sprotts, grimly, beginning to undress herself, ‘for a nervous woman, you leave a great many windows and doors open.’
‘I’m not afraid as long as you are with me,’ said Madame, yawning; ‘it’s by myself I get nervous.’
Miss Sprotts sniffed, and observed that ‘Prevention is better than cure,’ then went to bed, and both she and Madame were soon fast asleep. Selina slept on the outside of the bed, and Madame, having a sense of security from being with someone, slumbered calmly; so the night wore drowsily on, and nothing could be heard but the steady ticking of the clock and the heavy breathing of the two women.
A sleepy servant admitted Kitty when she came home from the ball, and had said goodbye to Mrs Killer and Bellthorp. Then Mrs Riller, whose husband had gone home three hours before, drove away with Bellthorp, and Kitty went into Madame’s room, while the sleepy servant, thankful that his vigil for the night was over, went to bed. Kitty found Madame’s door ajar, and went in softly, fearful lest she might wake her. She did not know that Selina was in the room, and as she heard the steady breathing of the sleepers, she concluded that Madame was asleep, and resolved to go quietly into her own room without disturbing the sleeper. So eerie the room looked with the faint night-light burning on the table beside the bed, and all the shadows, not marked and distinct as in a strong glare, were faintly confused. Just near the door was a long chevral glass, and Kitty caught sight of herself in it, wan and spectral-looking, in her white dress, and, as she let the heavy blue cloak fall from her shoulders, a perfect shower of apple blossoms were shaken on to the floor. Her hair had come undone from its sleek, smooth plaits, and now hung like a veil of gold on her shoulders. She looked closely at herself in the glass, and her face looked worn and haggard in the dim light. A pungent acrid odour permeated the room, and the heavy velvet curtains moved with subdued rustlings as the wind stole in through the window. On a table near her was a portrait of Vandeloup, which he had given Madame two days before, and though she could not see the face she knew it was his. Stretching out her hand she took the photograph from its stand, and sank into a low chair which stood at the end of the room some distance from the bed. So noiseless were her movements that the two sleepers never awoke, and the girl sat in the chair with the portrait in her hand dreaming of the man whom it represented. She knew his handsome face was smiling up at her out of the glimmering gloom, and clenched her hands in anger as she thought how he had treated her. She let the portrait fall on her lap, and leaning back in the chair, with all her golden hair showering down loosely over her shoulders, gave herself up to reflection.
He was going to marry Madame Midas — the man who had ruined her life; he would hold another woman in his arms and tell her all the false tales he had told her. He would look into her eyes with his own, and she would be unable to see the treachery and guile hidden in their depths. She could not stand it. False friend, false lover, he had been, but to see him married to another — no! it was too much. And yet what could she do? A woman in love believes no ill of the man she adores, and if she was to tell Madame Midas all she would not be believed. Ah! it was useless to fight against fate, it was too strong for her, so she would have to suffer in silence, and see them happy. That story of Hans Andersen’s, which she had read, about the little mermaid who danced, and felt that swords were wounding her feet while the prince smiled on his bride — yes, that was her case. She would have to stand by in silence and see him caressing another woman, while every caress would stab her like a sword. Was there no way of stopping it? Ah! what is that? The poison — no! no! anything but that. Madame had been kind to her, and she could not repay her trust with treachery. No, she was not weak enough for that. And yet suppose Madame died? no one could tell she had been poisoned, and then she could marry Vandeloup. Madame was sleeping in yonder bed, and on the table there was a glass with some liquid in it. She would only have to go to her room, fetch the poison, and put it in there — then retire to bed. Madame would surely drink during the night, and then — yes, there was only one way — the poison!
How still the house was: not a sound but the ticking of the clock in the hall and the rushing scamper of a rat or mouse. The dawn reddens faintly in the east and the chill morning breeze comes up from the south, salt with the odours of the ocean. Ah! what is that? a scream — a woman’s voice — then another, and the bell rings furiously. The frightened servants collect from all parts of the house, in all shapes of dress and undress. The bell sounds from the bedroom of Mrs Villiers, and having ascertained this they all rush in. What a sight meets their eyes. Kitty Marchurst, still in her ball dress, clinging convulsively to the chair; Madame Midas, pale but calm, ringing the bell; and on the bed, with one arm hanging over, lies Selina Sprotts — dead! The table near the bed was overturned on the floor, and the glass and the night-lamp both lie smashed to pieces on the carpet.
‘Send for a doctor at once,’ cried Madame, letting go the bell-rope and crossing to the window; ‘Selina has had a fit of some sort.’
Startled servant goes out to stables and wakes up the grooms, one of whom is soon on horseback riding for dear life to Dr Chinston. Clatter — clatter along in the keen morning air; a few workmen on their way to work gaze in surprise at this furious rider. Luckily, the doctor lives in St Kilda, and being awoke out of his sleep, dresses himself quickly, and taking the groom’s horse, rides back to Mrs Villiers’ house. He dismounts, enters the house, then the bedroom. Kitty, pale and wan, is seated in the chair; the window curtains are drawn, and the cold light of day pours into the room, while Madame Midas is kneeling beside the corpse, with all the servants around her. Dr Chinston lifts the arm; it falls limply down. The face is ghastly white, the eyes staring; there is a streak of foam on the tightly clenched mouth. The doctor puts his hand on the heart — not a throb; he closes the staring eyes reverently, and turns to the kneeling woman and the frightened servants.
‘She is dead,’ he says, briefly, and orders them to leave the room.
‘When did this occur, Mrs Villiers?’ he asked, when the room had been cleared and only himself, Madame, and Kitty remained.
‘I can’t tell you,’ replied Madame, weeping; ‘she was all right last night when we went to bed, and she stayed all night with me because I was nervous. I slept soundly, when I was awakened by a cry and saw Kitty standing beside the bed and Selina in convulsions; then she became quite still and lay like that till you came. What is the cause?’
‘Apoplexy,’ replied the doctor, doubtfully; ‘at least, judging from the symptoms; but perhaps Miss Marchurst can tell us when the attack came on?’
He turned to Kitty, who was shivering in the chair and looked so pale that Madame Midas went over to her to see what was the matter. The girl, however, shrank away with a cry as the elder woman approached, and rising to her feet moved unsteadily towards the doctor.
‘You say she,’ pointing to the body, ‘died of apoplexy?’
‘Yes,’ he answered, curtly, ‘all the symptoms of apoplexy are there.’
‘You are wrong!’ gasped Kitty, laying her hand on his arm, ‘it is poison!’
‘Poison!’ echoed Madame and the Doctor in surprise.
‘Listen,’ said Kitty, quickly, pulling herself together by a great effort. ‘I came home from the ball between two and three, I entered the room to go to my own,’ pointing to the other door; ‘I did not know Selina was with Madame.’
‘No,’ said Madame, quietly, ‘that is true, I only asked her to stop at the last moment.’
‘I was going quietly to bed,’ resumed Kitty, hurriedly, ‘in order not to waken Madame, when I saw the portrait of M. Vandeloup on the table; I took it up to look at it.’
‘How could you see without a light?’ asked Dr Chinston, sharply, looking at her.
‘There was a night light burning,’ replied Kitty, pointing to the fragments on the floor; ‘and I could only guess it was M. Vandeloup’s portrait; but at all events,’ she said, quickly, ‘I sat down in the chair over there and fell asleep.’
‘You see, doctor, she had been to a ball and was tired,’ interposed Madame Midas; ‘but go on, Kitty, I want to know why you say Selina was poisoned.’
‘I don’t know how long I was asleep,’ said Kitty, wetting her dry lips with her tongue, ‘but I was awoke by a noise at the window there,’ pointing towards the window, upon which both her listeners turned towards it, ‘and looking, I saw a hand coming out from behind the curtain with a bottle in it; it held the bottle over the glass on the table, and after pouring the contents in, then withdrew.’
‘And why did you not cry out for assistance?’ asked the doctor, quickly.
‘I couldn’t,’ she replied, ‘I was so afraid that I fainted. I recovered my senses, Selina had drank the poison, and when I got up on my feet and went to the bed she was in convulsions; I woke Madame, and that’s all.’
‘A strange story,’ said Chinston, musingly, ‘where is the glass?’
‘It’s broken, doctor,’ replied Madame Midas; ‘in getting out of bed I knocked the table down, and both the night lamp and glass smashed.’
‘No one could have been concealed behind the curtain of the window?’ said the doctor to Madame Midas.
‘No,’ she replied, ‘but the window was open all night; so if it is as Kitty says, the man who gave the poison must have put his hand through the open window.’
Dr Chinston went to the window and looked out; there were no marks of feet on the flower bed, where it was so soft that anyone standing on it would have left a footmark behind.
‘Strange,’ said the doctor, ‘it’s a peculiar story,’ looking at Kitty keenly.
‘But a true one,’ she replied boldly, the colour coming back to her face; ‘I say she was poisoned.’
‘By whom?’ asked Madame Midas, the memory of her husband coming back to her.
‘I can’t tell you,’ answered Kitty, ‘I only saw the hand.’
‘At all events,’ said Chinston, slowly, ‘the poisoner did not know that your nurse was with you, so the poison was meant for Mrs Villiers.’
Tor me?’ she echoed, ghastly pale; ‘I knew it — my husband is alive, and this is his work.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09