Is there anyone nowadays who reads Cowper — that charming, domestic poet who wrote ‘The Task’, and invested even furniture with the glamour of poesy? Alas! to many people Cowper is merely a name, or is known only as the author of the delightfully quaint ballad of John Gilpin. Yet he was undoubtedly the Poet Laureate of domesticity, and every householder should possess a bust or picture of him — placed, not amid the frigid splendours of the drawing room, but occupying the place of honour in his own particular den, where everything is old-fashioned, cheery, and sanctified by long usage. No one wrote so pleasantly about the pleasures of a comfortable room as Cowper. And was he not right to do so? After all, every hearth is the altar of the family, whereon the sacred fire should be kept constantly burning, waxing and waning with the seasons, but never be permitted to die out altogether. Miss Sprotts, as before mentioned, was much in favour of a constant fire, because of the alleged dampness of the house, and Madame Midas did not by any means object, as she was a perfect salamander for heat. Hence, when the outward door was closed, the faded red curtains of the window drawn, and the newly replenished fire blazed brightly in the wide fireplace, the room was one which even Cowper — sybarite in home comforts as he was — would have contemplated with delight.
Madame Midas was seated now at the small table in the centre of the room, poring over a bewildering array of figures, and the soft glow of the lamp touched her smooth hair and white dress with a subdued light.
Archie sat by the fire, half asleep, and there was a dead silence in the room, only broken by the rapid scratching of Madame’s pen or the click of Selina’s needles. At last Mrs Villiers, with a sigh of relief, laid down her pen, put all her papers together, and tied them neatly with a bit of string.
‘I’m afraid I’ll have to get a clerk, Archie,’ she said, as she put the papers away, ‘the office work is getting too much for me.’
‘’Deed, mem, and ’tis that same I was thinkin’ o’,’ returned Mr McIntosh, sitting bolt upright in his chair, lest the imputation of having been asleep should be brought against him. ‘It’s ill wark seein’ ye spoilin’ your bonny eyes owre sic a muckle lot o’ figures as ye hae there.’
‘Someone must do it,’ said Madame, resuming her seat at the table.
‘Then why not get a body that can dae it?’ retorted Archie; ‘not but what ye canna figure yersel’, mem, but really ye need a rest, and if I hear of onyone in toun wha we can trust I’ll bring him here next week.’
‘I don’t see why you shouldn’t,’ said Madame, musingly; ‘the mine is fairly under way now, and if things go on as they are doing, I must have someone to assist me.’
At this moment a knock came to the front door, which caused Selina to drop her work with a sudden start, and rise to her feet.
‘Not you, Selina,’ said Madame, in a quiet voice; ‘let Archie go; it may be some tramp.’
‘’Deed no, mem,’ replied Archie, obstinately, as he arose from his seat; ‘’tis verra likely a man fra the warks saying he wants to go. There’s mair talk nor sense aboot them, I’m thinkin’— the yattering parrots.’
Selina resumed her knitting in a most phlegmatic manner, but Madame listened intently, for she was always haunted by a secret dread of her husband breaking in on her, and it was partly on this account that McIntosh stayed in the house. She heard a murmur of voices, and then Archie returned with two men, who entered the room and stood before Madame in the light of the lamp.
‘’Tis two men fra that wudden-legged gowk o’ a Slivers,’ said Archie, respectfully. ‘Ain o’ them has a wee bit letter for ye’— turning to receive same from the foremost man.
The man, however, did not take notice of Archie’s gesture, but walking forward to Madame, laid the letter down before her. As he did so, she caught sight of the delicacy of his hands, and looked up suddenly with a piercing gaze. He bore the scrutiny coolly, and took a chair in silence, his companion doing the same, while Madame opened the letter and read Slivers’ bad writing with a dexterity only acquired by long practice. Having finished her perusal, she looked up slowly.
‘A broken-down gentleman,’ she said to herself, as she saw the easy bearing and handsome face of the young man; then looking at his companion, she saw by his lumpish aspect and coarse hands, that he occupied a much lower rank of life than his friend.
Monsieur Vandeloup — for it was he — caught her eye as she was scrutinising them, and his face broke into a smile — a most charming smile, as Madame observed mentally, though she allowed nothing of her thoughts to appear on her face.
‘You want work,’ she said, slowly folding up the letter, and placing it in her pocket; ‘do you understand anything about gold-mining?’
‘Unfortunately, no, Madame,’ said Vandeloup, coolly; ‘but we are willing to learn.’
Archie grunted in a dissatisfied manner, for he was by no means in favour of teaching people their business, and, besides, he thought Vandeloup too much of a gentleman to do good work.
‘You look hardly strong enough for such hard labour,’ said Mrs Villiers, doubtfully eyeing the slender figure of the young man. ‘Your companion, I think, will do, but you —’
‘I, Madame, am like the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin,’ replied Vandeloup, gaily; ‘but, unfortunately, I am now compelled by necessity to work, and though I should prefer to earn my bread in an easier manner, beggars,’— with a characteristic shrug, which did not escape Madame’s eye — cannot be choosers.’
‘You are French?’ she asked quickly, in that language.
‘Yes, Madame,’ he replied in the same tongue, ‘both my friend and myself are from Paris, but we have not been long out here.’
‘Humph,’ Madame leaned her head on her hand and thought, while Vandeloup looked at her keenly, and remembered what Slivers had said.
‘She is, indeed, a handsome woman,’ he observed, mentally; ‘my lines will fall in pleasant places, if I remain here.’
Mrs Villiers rather liked the looks of this young man; there was a certain fascination about him which few women could resist, and Madame, although steeled to a considerable extent by experience, was yet a woman. His companion, however, she did not care about — he had a sullen and lowering countenance, and looked rather dangerous.
‘What is your name?’ she asked the young man.
‘You are a gentleman?’
He bowed, but said nothing.
‘And you?’ asked Madame, sharply turning to the other.
He looked up and touched his mouth.
‘Pardon him not answering, Madame,’ interposed Vandeloup, ‘he has the misfortune to be dumb.’
‘Dumb?’ echoed Madame, with a glance of commiseration, while Archie looked startled, and Selina mentally observed that silence was golden.
‘Yes, he has been so from his birth — at least, so he gives me to understand,’ said Gaston, with a shrug of his shoulders, which insinuated a doubt on the subject; ‘but it’s more likely the result of an accident, for he can hear though he cannot speak. However, he is strong and willing to work; and I also, if you will kindly give me an opportunity,’ added he, with a winning smile.
‘You have not many qualifications,’ said Madame, shortly, angry with herself for so taking to this young man’s suave manner.
‘Probably not,’ retorted Vandeloup, with a cynical smile. ‘I fancy it will be more a case of charity than anything else, as we are starving.’
Madame started, while Archie murmured ‘Puir deils.’
‘Surely not as bad as that?’ observed Mrs Villiers, in a softer tone.
‘Why not?’ retorted the Frenchman, carelessly. ‘Manna does not fall from heaven as in the days of Moses. We are strangers in a strange land, and it is hard to obtain employment. My companion Pierre can work in your mine, and if you will take me on I can keep your books’— with a sudden glance at a file of papers on the table.
‘Thank you, I keep my own books,’ replied Madame, shortly. ‘What do you say to engaging them, Archie?’
‘We ma gie them a try,’ said McIntosh, cautiously. ‘Ye do need a figger man, as I tauld ye, and the dour deil can wark i’ the claim.’
Madame drew a long breath, and then made up her mind.
‘Very well,’ she said, sharply; ‘you are engaged, M. Vandeloup, as my clerk, and your companion can work in the mine. As to wages and all that, we will settle to-morrow, but I think you will find everything satisfactory.’
‘I am sure of that, Madame,’ returned Vandeloup, with a bow.
‘And now,’ said Madame Midas, graciously, relaxing somewhat now that business was over, ‘you had better have some supper.’
Pierre’s face lighted up when he heard this invitation, and Vandeloup bowed politely.
‘You are very kind,’ he said, looking at Mrs Villiers in a friendly manner; ‘supper is rather a novelty to both of us.’
Selina meanwhile had gone out, and returned with some cold beef and pickles, a large loaf and a jug of beer. These she placed on the table, and then retired to her seat again, inwardly rebellious at having two tramps at the table, but outwardly calm.
Pierre fell upon the victuals before him with the voracity of a starving animal, and ate and drank in such a savage manner that Madame was conscious of a kind of curious repugnance, and even Archie was startled out of his Scotch phlegm.
‘I wadna care aboot keepin’ yon long,’ he muttered to himself; ‘he’s mair like a cannibal nor a ceevalized body.’
Vandeloup, however, ate very little and soon finished; then filling a glass with beer, he held it to his lips and bowed again to Madame Midas.
‘To your health, Madame,’ he said, drinking.
Mrs Villiers bowed courteously. This young man pleased her. She was essentially a woman with social instincts, and the appearance of this young and polished stranger in the wilds of the Pactolus claim promised her a little excitement. It was true that every now and then, when she caught a glimpse from his scintillating eyes, she was conscious of a rather unpleasant sensation, but this she put down to fancy, as the young man’s manners were really charming.
When the supper was ended, Pierre pushed back his chair into the shadow and once more relapsed into his former gloom, but Vandeloup stood up and looked towards Madame in a hesitating manner.
‘I’m afraid, Madame, we disturb you,’ he murmured vaguely, though in his heart he wished to stay in this pleasant room and talk to such a handsome woman; ‘we had best be going.’
‘Not at all,’ answered Madame, graciously, ‘sit down; you and your friend can sleep in the men’s quarters to-night, and to-morrow we will see if we can’t provide you with a better resting-place.’
Vandeloup murmured something indistinctly, and then resumed his seat.
‘Meanwhile,’ said Mrs Villiers, leaning back in her chair, and regarding him fixedly, ‘tell me all about yourselves.’
‘Alas, Madame,’ answered Vandeloup, with a charming smile and deprecating shrug of his shoulders, ‘there is not much to tell. I was brought up in Paris, and, getting tired of city life, I came out to India to see a little of the world; then I went over to Borneo, and was coming down to Australia, when our vessel was wrecked and all on board were drowned but myself and this fellow,’ pointing to Pierre, ‘who was one of the sailors. We managed to get a boat, and after tossing about for nearly a week we were cast up on the coast of Queensland, and from thence came to Melbourne. I could not get work there, neither could my friend, and as we heard of Ballarat we came up here to try to get employment, and our lines, Madame,’— with another bow —‘have fallen in a pleasant place.’
‘What a dreadful chapter of accidents,’ said Madame, coolly looking at him to see if he was speaking the truth, for experience of her husband had inspired her with an instinctive distrust of men. Vandeloup, however, bore her scrutiny without moving a muscle of his face, so Madame at last withdrew her eyes, quite satisfied that his story was true.
‘Is there no one in Paris to whom you can write?’ she asked, after a pause.
‘Luckily, there is,’ returned Gaston, ‘and I have already sent a letter, asking for a remittance, but it takes time to get an answer, and as I have lost all my books, papers, and money, I must just wait for a few months, and, as I have to live in the meantime, I am glad to obtain work.’
‘Still, your consul —’ began Mrs Villiers.
‘Alas, Madame, what can I say — how can I prove to him that I am what I assert to be? My companion is dumb and cannot speak for me, and, unluckily, he can neither read nor write. I have no papers to prove myself, so my consul may think me — what you call — a scamp. No; I will wait till I receive news from home, and get to my own position again; besides,’ with a shrug, ‘after all, it is experience.’
‘Experience,’ said Madame, quietly, ‘is a good schoolmaster, but the fees are somewhat high.’
‘Ah!’ said Vandeloup, with a pleased look, ‘you know Heine, I perceive, Madame. I did not know he was read out here.’
‘We are not absolute barbarians, M. Vandeloup,’ said Madame, with a smile, as she arose and held out her hand to the young man; ‘and now good night, for I am feeling tired, and I will see you to-morrow. Mr McIntosh will show you where you are to sleep.’
Vandeloup took the hand she held out to him and pressed it to his lips with a sudden gesture. ‘Madame,’ he said, passionately, ‘you are an angel, for to-day you have saved the lives of two men.’
Madame snatched her hand away quickly, and a flush of annoyance spread over her face as she saw how Selina and Archie stared. Vandeloup, however, did not wait for her answer, but went out, followed by Pierre. Archie put on his hat and walked out after them, while Madame Midas stood looking at Selina with a thoughtful expression of countenance.
‘I don’t know if I’ve done a right thing, Selina,’ she said, at length; ‘but as they were starving I could hardly turn them away.’
‘Cast your bread on the waters and it shall come back after many days — buttered,’ said Selina, giving her own version of the text.
‘M. Vandeloup talks well,’ she observed.
‘So did HE,’ replied Selina, with a sniff, referring to Mr Villiers; ‘once bitten, twice shy.’
‘Quite right, Selina,’ replied Mrs Villiers, coolly; ‘but you are going too fast. I’m not going to fall in love with my servant.’
‘You’re a woman,’ retorted Selina, undauntedly, for she had not much belief in her own sex.
‘Yes, who has been tricked and betrayed by a man,’ said Madame, fiercely; ‘and do you think because I succour a starving human being I am attracted by his handsome face? You ought to know me better than that, Selina. I have always been true to myself,’ and without another word she left the room.
Selina stood still for a moment, then deliberately put away her work, slapped the cat in order to relieve her feelings, and poked the fire vigorously.
‘I don’t like him,’ she said, emphasizing every word with a poke. ‘He’s too smooth and handsome, his eyes ain’t true, and his tongue’s too smart. I hate him.’
Having delivered herself of this opinion, she went to boil some water for Mr McIntosh, who always had some whisky hot before going to bed.
Selina was right in her estimate of Vandeloup, and, logically argued, the case stood thus:—
Some animals of a fine organization have an instinct which warns them to avoid approaching danger.
Woman is one of these finely-organized animals. ERGO—
Let no woman go contrary to her instinct.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09