Of two evils it is always best to choose the least, and as M. Vandeloup had to choose between the loss of his popularity or his liberty, he chose to lose the former instead of the latter. After all, as he argued to himself, Australia at large is a small portion of the world, and in America no one would know anything about his little escapade in connection with Kitty. He knew that he was in Gollipeck’s power, and that unless he acceded to that gentleman’s demand as to giving evidence he would be denounced to the authorities as an escaped convict from New Caledonia, and would be sent back there. Of course, his evidence could not but prove detrimental to himself, seeing how badly he had behaved to Kitty, but still as going through the ordeal meant liberty, he did so, and the result was as he had foreseen. Men, as a rule, are not very squeamish, and view each other’s failings, especially towards women, with a lenient eye, but Vandeloup had gone too far, and the Bachelors’ Club unanimously characterised his conduct as ‘damned shady’, so a letter was sent requesting M. Vandeloup to take his name off the books of the club. He immediately resigned, and wrote a polite letter to the secretary, which brought uneasy blushes to the cheek of that gentleman by its stinging remarks about his and his fellow clubmen’s morality. He showed it to several of the members, but as they all had their little redeeming vices, they determined to take no notice, and so M. Vandeloup was left alone. Another thing which happened was that he was socially ostracised from society, and his table, which used to be piled up with invitations, soon became quite bare. Of course, he knew he could force Meddlechip to recognise him, but he did not choose to do so, as all his thoughts were fixed on America. He had plenty of money, and with a new name and a brand new character, Vandeloup thought he would prosper exceedingly well in the States. So he stayed at home, not caring to face the stony faces of friends who cut him, and waited for the trial of Kitty Marchurst, after which he intended to leave for Sydney at once, and take the next steamer to San Francisco. He did not mind waiting, but amused himself reading, smoking, and playing, and was quite independent of Melbourne society. Only two things worried him, and the first of these was the annoyance of Pierre Lemaire, who seemed to have divined his intention of going away, and haunted him day and night like an unquiet spirit. Whenever Vandeloup looked out, he saw the dumb man watching the house, and if he went for a walk, Pierre would slouch sullenly along behind him, as he had done in the early days. Vandeloup could have called in the aid of a policeman to rid himself of this annoyance, but the fact was he was afraid of offending Pierre, as he might be tempted to reveal what he knew, and the result would not be pleasant. So Gaston bore patiently with the disagreeable system of espionage the dumb man kept over him, and consoled himself with the idea that once he was on his way to America, it would not matter two straws whether Pierre told all he knew, or kept silent. The other thing which troubled the young man were the words Kitty had made use of in Mrs Villiers’ drawing-room regarding the secret she said she knew. It made him uneasy, for he half guessed what it was, and thought she might tell it to someone out of revenge, and then there would be more troubles for him to get out of. Then, again, he argued that she was too fond of him ever to tell anything likely to injure him, even though he had put a rope round her neck. If he could have settled the whole affair by running away, he would have done so, but Gollipeck was still in Melbourne, and Gaston knew he could not leave the town without the terrible old man finding it out, and bringing him back. At last the torture of wondering how much Kitty knew was too much for him, and he determined to go to the Melbourne gaol and interview her. So he obtained an order from the authorities to see her, and prepared to start next morning. He sent the servant out for a hansom, and by the time it was at the door, M. Vandeloup, cool, calm, and well dressed, came down stairs pulling on his gloves. The first thing he saw when he got outside was Pierre waiting for him with his old hat pulled down over his eyes, and his look of sullen resignation. Gaston nodded coolly to him, and told the cabby he wanted to go to the Melbourne gaol, whereupon Pierre slouched forward as the young man was preparing to enter the cab, and laid his hand on his arm.
‘Well,’ said Vandeloup, in a quiet voice, in French, shaking off the dumb man’s arm, ‘what do you want?’
Pierre pointed to the cab, whereupon M. Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders. ‘Surely you don’t want to come to the gaol with me,’ he said, mockingly, ‘you’ll get there soon enough.’
The other nodded, and made a step towards the cab, but Vandeloup pushed him back.
‘Curse the fool,’ he muttered to himself, ‘I’ll have to humour him or he’ll be making a scene — you can’t come,’ he added aloud, but Pierre still refused to go away.
This conversation or rather monologue, seeing M. Vandeloup was the only speaker, was carried on in French, so the cabman and the servant at the door were quite ignorant of its purport, but looked rather astonished at the conduct of the dirty tramp towards such an elegant-looking gentleman. Vandeloup saw this and therefore determined to end the scene.
‘Well, well,’ he said to Pierre in French, ‘get in at once,’ and then when the dumb man entered the cab, he explained to the cabman in English:—‘This poor devil is a pensioner of mine, and as he wants to see a friend of his in gaol I’ll take him with me.’
He stepped into the cab which drove off, the cabman rather astonished at the whole affair, but none the less contented himself with merely winking at the pretty servant girl who stood on the steps, whereupon she tossed her head and went inside.
As they drove along Vandeloup said nothing to Pierre, not that he did not want to, but he mistrusted the trap-door in the roof of the cab, which would permit the cabman to overhear everything. So they went along in silence, and when they arrived at the gaol Vandeloup told the cabman to wait for him, and walked towards the gaol.
‘You are coming inside, I suppose,’ he said, sharply, to Pierre, who still slouched alongside.
The dumb man nodded sullenly.
Vandeloup cursed Pierre in his innermost heart, but smiled blandly and agreed to let him enter with him. There was some difficulty with the warder at the door, as the permission to see the prisoner was only made out in the name of M. Vandeloup, but after some considerable trouble they succeeded in getting in.
‘My faith!’ observed Gaston, lightly, as they went along to the cell, conducted by a warder, ‘it’s almost as hard to get into gaol as to get out of it.’
The warder admitted them both to Kitty’s cell, and left them alone with her. She was seated on the bed in the corner of the cell, in an attitude of deepest dejection. When they entered she looked up in a mechanical sort of manner, and Vandeloup could see how worn and pinched-looking her face was. Pierre went to one end of the cell and leaned against the wall in an indifferent manner, while Vandeloup stood right in front of the unhappy woman. Kitty arose when she saw him, and an expression of loathing passed over her haggard-looking face.
‘Ah!’ she said, bitterly, rejecting Vandeloup’s preferred hand, ‘so you have come to see your work; well, look around at these bare walls; see how thin and ugly I have grown; think of the crime with which I am charged, and surely even Gaston Vandeloup will be satisfied.’
The young man sneered.
‘Still as good at acting as ever, I see,’ he said, mockingly; ‘cannot you even see a friend without going into these heroics?’
‘Why have you come here?’ she asked, drawing herself up to her full height.
‘Because I am your friend,’ he answered, coolly.
‘My friend!’ she echoed, scornfully, looking at him with contempt; ‘you ruined my life a year ago, now you have endeavoured to fasten the guilt of murder on me, and yet you call yourself my friend; a good story, truly,’ with a bitter laugh.
‘I could not help giving the evidence I did,’ replied Gaston, coolly, shrugging his shoulders; ‘if you are innocent, what I say will not matter.’
‘If I am innocent!’ she said, looking at him steadily; ‘you villain, you know I am innocent!’
‘I know nothing of the sort.’
Then you believe I committed the crime?’
Kitty sat helplessly down on the bed, and passed her hand across her eyes.
‘My God!’ she muttered, ‘I am going mad.’
‘Not at all unlikely,’ he replied, carelessly.
She looked vacantly round the cell, and caught sight of Pierre shrinking back into the shadow.
‘Why did you bring your accomplice with you?’ she said, looking at Gaston.
M. Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.
‘Really, my dear Bebe,’ he said, lazily, ‘I don’t know why you should call him my accomplice, as I have committed no crime.’
‘Have you not?’ she said, rising to her feet, and bending towards him, ‘think again.’
Vandeloup shook his head, with a smile.
‘No, I do not think I have,’ he answered, glancing keenly at her; ‘I suppose you want me to be as black as yourself?’
‘You coward!’ she said, in a rage, turning on him, ‘how dare you taunt me in this manner? it is not enough that you have ruined me, and imperilled my life, without jeering at me thus, you coward?’
‘Bah!’ retorted Vandeloup, cynically, brushing some dust off his coat, ‘this is not the point; you insinuate that I committed a crime, perhaps you will tell me what kind of a crime?’
‘Murder,’ she replied, in a whisper.
‘Oh, indeed,’ sneered Gaston, coolly, though his lips twitched a little, ‘the same style of crime as your own? and whose murder am I guilty of, pray?’
Vandeloup shrugged his shoulders.
‘Who can prove it?’ he asked, contemptuously.
‘You,’ with a sneer, ‘a murderess?’
‘Who can prove I am a murderess?’ she cried, wildly.
‘I can,’ he answered, with an ugly look; ‘and I will if you don’t keep a quiet tongue.’
‘I will keep quiet no longer,’ boldly rising and facing Vandeloup, with her hands clenched at her sides; ‘I have tried to shield you faithfully through all your wickedness, but now that you accuse me of committing a crime, which accusation you know is false, I accuse you, Gaston Vandeloup, and your accomplice, yonder,’ wheeling round and pointing to Pierre, who shrank away, ‘of murdering Randolph Villiers, at the Black Hill, Ballarat, for the sake of a nugget of gold he carried.’
Vandeloup looked at her disdainfully.
‘You are mad,’ he said, in a cold voice; ‘this is the raving of a lunatic; there is no proof of what you say; it was proved conclusively that myself and Pierre were asleep at our hotel while M. Villiers was with Jarper at two o’clock in the morning.’
‘I know that was proved,’ she retorted, ‘and by some jugglery on your part; but, nevertheless, I saw you and him,’ pointing again to Pierre, ‘murder Villiers.’
‘You saw it,’ echoed Vandeloup, with a disbelieving smile; ‘tell me how?’
‘Ah!’ she cried, making a step forward, ‘you do not believe me, but I tell you it is true — yes, I know now who the two men were following Madame Midas as she drove away: one was her husband, who wished to rob her, and the other was Pierre, who, acting upon your instructions, was to get the gold from Villiers should he succeed in getting it from Madame. You left me a few minutes afterwards, but I, with my heart full of love — wretched woman that I was — followed you at a short distance, unwilling to lose sight of you even for a little time. I climbed down among the rocks and saw you seat yourself in a narrow part of the path. Curiosity then took the place of love, and I watched to see what you were going to do. Pierre — that wretch who cowers in the corner — came down the path and you spoke to him in French. What was said I did not know, but I guessed enough to know you meditated some crime. Then Villiers came down the path with the nugget in its box under his arm. I recognised the box as the one which Madame Midas had brought to our house. When Villiers came opposite you you spoke to him; he tried to pass on, and then Pierre sprang out from behind the rock and the two men struggled together, while you seized the box containing the gold, which Villiers had let fall, and watched the struggle. You saw that Villiers, animated by despair, was gradually gaining the victory over Pierre, and then you stepped in — yes; I saw you snatch Pierre’s knife from the back of his waist and stab Villiers in the back. Then you put the knife into Pierre’s hand, all bloody, as Villiers fell dead, and I fled away.’
She stopped, breathless with her recital, and Vandeloup, pale but composed, would have answered her, when a cry from Pierre startled them. He had come close to them, and was looking straight at Kitty.
‘My God!’ he cried; ‘then I am innocent?’
‘You!’ shrieked Kitty, falling back on her bed; ‘who are you?’
The man pulled his hat off and came a step nearer.
‘I am Randolph Villiers!’
Kitty shrieked again and covered her face with her hands, while Vandeloup laughed in a mocking manner, though his pale face and quivering lip told that his mirth was assumed.
‘Yes,’ said Villiers, throwing his hat on the floor of the cell, ‘it was Pierre Lemaire, and not I, who died. The struggle took place as you have described, but he,’ pointing to Vandeloup, ‘wishing to get rid of Pierre for reasons of his own stabbed him, and not me, in the back. He thrust the knife into my hand, and I, in my blind fury, thought that I had murdered the dumb man. I was afraid of being arrested for the murder, so, as suggested by Vandeloup, I changed clothes with the dead man and wrapped my own up in a bundle. We hid the body and the nugget in one of the old mining shafts and then came down to Ballarat. I was similar to Pierre in appearance, except that my chin was shaven. I went down to the Wattle Tree Hotel as Pierre after leaving my clothes outside the window of the bedroom which Vandeloup pointed out to me. Then he went to the theatre and told me to rejoin him there as Villiers. I got my own clothes into the room, dressed again as myself; then, locking the door, so that the people of the hotel might suppose that Pierre slept, I jumped out of the window of the bedroom and went to the theatre. There I played my part as you know, and while we were behind the scenes Mr Wopples asked me to put out the gas in his room. I did so, and took from his dressing-table a black beard, in order to disguise myself as Pierre till my beard had grown. We went to supper, and then I parted with Jarper at two o’clock in the morning, and went back to the hotel, where I climbed into the bedroom through the window and reassumed Pierre’s dress for ever. It was by Vandeloup’s advice I pretended to be drunk, as I could not go to the Pactolus, where my wife would have recognised me. Then I, as the supposed Pierre, was discharged, as you know. Vandeloup, aping friendship, drew the dead man’s salary and bought clothes and a box for me. In the middle of one night I still disguised as Pierre, slipped out of the window, and went up to Black Hill, where I found the nugget and brought it down to my room at the Wattle Tree Hotel. Then Vandeloup brought in the box with my clothes, and we packed the nugget in it, together with the suit I had worn at the time of the murder. Following his instructions, I came down to Melbourne, and there disposed of the nugget — no need to ask how, as there are always people ready to do things of that sort for payment. When I was paid for the nugget, and I only got eight hundred pounds, the man who melted it down taking the rest, I had to give six hundred to Vandeloup, as I was in his power as I thought, and dare not refuse in case he should denounce me for the murder of Pierre Lemaire. And now I find that I have been innocent all the time, and he has been frightening me with a shadow. He, not I, was the murderer of Pierre Lemaire, and you can prove it.’
During all this recital, which Kitty listened to with staring eyes, Vandeloup had stood quite still, revolving in his own mind how he could escape from the position in which he found himself. When Villiers finished his recital he raised his head and looked defiantly at both his victims.
‘Fate has placed the game in your hands,’ he said coolly, while they stood and looked at him; ‘but I’m not beaten yet, my friend. May I ask what you intend to do?’
‘Prove my innocence,’ said Villiers, boldly.
‘Indeed!’ sneered Gaston, ‘at my expense, I presume.’
‘Yes! I will denounce you as the murderer of Pierre Lemaire.’
‘And I,’ said Kitty, quickly, ‘will prove Villiers’ innocence.’
Vandeloup turned on her with all the lithe, cruel grace of a tiger.
‘First you must prove your own innocence,’ he said, in a low, fierce voice. ‘Yes; if you can hang me for the murder of Pierre Lemaire, I can hang you for the murder of Selina Sprotts; yes, though I know you did not do it.’
‘Ah!’ said Kitty, quickly, springing forward, ‘you know who committed the crime.’
‘Yes,’ replied Vandeloup, slowly, ‘the man who committed the crime intended to murder Madame Midas, and he was the man who hated her and wished her dead — her husband.’
‘I?’ cried Villiers, starting forward, ‘you lie.’
Vandeloup wheeled round quickly on him, and, getting close to him, spoke rapidly.
‘No, I do not lie,’ he said, in a concentrated voice of anger; ‘you followed me up to the house of M. Meddlechip, and hid among the trees on the lawn to watch the house; you saw Bebe throw the bottle out, and picked it up; then you went to St Kilda and, climbing over the wall, committed the crime, as she,’ pointing to Kitty, ‘saw you do; I met you in the street near the house after you had committed it, and see,’ plunging his hand into Villiers’ pocket, ‘here is the bottle which contained the poison,’ and he held up to Kitty the bottle with the two red bands round it, which she had thrown away.
‘It is false!’ cried Villiers, in despair, seeing that all the evidence was against him.
‘Prove it, then,’ retorted Vandeloup, knocking at the door to summon the warder. ‘Save your own neck before you put mine in danger.’
The door opened, and the warder appeared. Kitty and Villiers gazed horror-struck at one another, while Vandeloup, without another word, rapidly left the cell. The warder beckoned to Villiers to come, and, with a deep sigh, he obeyed.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Kitty, as he moved towards the door.
‘Going?’ he repeated, mechanically. ‘I am going to see my wife.’
He left the cell, and when he got outside the gaol he saw the hansom with Vandeloup in it driving rapidly away. Villiers looked at the retreating vehicle in despair. ‘My God,’ he murmured, raising his face to the blue sky with a frightful expression of despair; ‘how am I to escape the clutches of this devil?’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09