Slivers and his friend Villiers were by no means pleased with the existing state of things. In sending Vandeloup to the Pactolus claim, they had thought to compromise Madame Midas by placing her in the society of a young and handsome man, and counting on one of two things happening — either that Madame would fall in love with the attractive Frenchman, and seek for a divorce in order to marry him — which divorce Villiers would of course resist, unless she bribed him by giving him an interest in the Pactolus — or that Villiers could assume an injured tone and accuse Vandeloup of being his wife’s lover, and threaten to divorce her unless she made him her partner in the claim. But they had both reckoned wrongly, for neither of these things happened, as Madame was not in love with Vandeloup, and acted with too much circumspection to give any opportunity for scandal. Consequently, Slivers and Co., not finding matters going to their satisfaction, met one day at the office of the senior partner for the purpose of discussing the affair, and seeing what could be done towards bringing Madame Midas to their way of thinking.
Villiers was lounging in one of the chairs, dressed in a white linen suit, and looked rather respectable, though his inflamed face and watery eyes showed what a drunkard he was. He was sipping a glass of whisky and water and smoking his pipe, while he watched Slivers stumping up and down the office, swinging his cork arm vehemently to and fro as was his custom when excited. Billy sat on the table and eyed his master with a steady stare, or else hopped about among the papers talking to himself.
‘You thought you were going to do big things when you sent that jackadandy out to the Pactolus,’ said Villiers, after a pause.
‘At any rate, I did something,’ snarled Slivers, in a rage, ‘which is more than you did, you whisky barrel.’
‘Look here, don’t you call names,’ growled Mr Villiers, in a sulky tone. ‘I’m a gentleman, remember that.’
‘You were a gentleman, you mean,’ corrected the senior partner, with a malignant glance of his one eye. ‘What are you now?’
‘A stockbroker,’ retorted the other, taking a sip of whisky.
‘And a damned poor one at that,’ replied the other, sitting on the edge of the table, which position caused his wooden leg to stick straight out, a result which he immediately utilized by pointing it threateningly in the direction of Villiers.
‘Look here,’ said that gentleman, suddenly sitting up in his chair in a defiant manner, ‘drop these personalities and come to business; what’s to be done? Vandeloup is firmly established there, but there’s not the slightest chance of my wife falling in love with him.’
‘Wait,’ said Slivers, stolidly wagging his wooden leg up and down; ‘wait, you blind fool, wait.’
‘Wait for the waggon!’ shrieked Billy, behind, and then supplemented his remarks by adding, ‘Oh, my precious mother!’ as he climbed up on Slivers’ shoulder.
‘You always say wait,’ growled Villiers, not paying any attention to Billy’s interruption; ‘I tell you we can’t wait much longer; they’ll drop on the Devil’s Lead shortly, and then we’ll be up a tree.’
‘Then, suppose you go out to the Pactolus and see your wife,’ suggested Slivers.
‘No go,’ returned Villiers, gloomily, ‘she’d break my head.’
‘Bah! you ain’t afraid of a woman, are you?’ snarled Slivers, viciously.
‘No, but I am of McIntosh and the rest of them,’ retorted Villiers. ‘What can one man do against twenty of these devils. Why, they’d kill me if I went out there; and that infernal wife of mine wouldn’t raise her little finger to save me.’
‘You’re a devil!’ observed Billy, eyeing Villiers from his perch on Slivers’ shoulder. ‘Oh, Lord! ha! ha! ha!’ going into fits of laughter; then drawing himself suddenly up, he ejaculated ‘Pickles!’ and shut up.
‘It’s no good beating about the bush,’ said the wooden-legged man, getting down from the table. ‘You go out near the claim, and see if you can catch her; then give it to her hot.’
‘What am I to say?’ asked Villiers, helplessly.
Slivers looked at him with fiery scorn in his one eye.
‘Say!’ he shrieked, waving his cork arm, ‘talk about your darned honour! Say she’s dragging your noble name through the mud, and say you’ll divorce her if she don’t give you half a share in the Pactolus; that will frighten her.’
‘Pickles!’ again ejaculated the parrot.
‘Oh, no, it won’t,’ said Villiers; ‘Brag’s a good dog, but he don’t bite. I’ve tried that game on before, and it was no go.’
‘Then try it your own way,’ grumbled Slivers, sulkily, going to his seat and pouring himself out some whisky. ‘I don’t care what you do, as long as I get into the Pactolus, and once I’m in the devil himself won’t get me out.’
Villiers thought a moment, then turned to go.
‘I’ll try,’ he said, as he went out of the door, ‘but it’s no go, I tell you, she’s stone,’ and with a dismal nod he slouched away.
‘Stone, is she?’ cried the old man, pounding furiously on the floor with his wooden leg, ‘then I’d smash her; I’d crush her; I’d grind her into little bits, damn her,’ and overcome by his rage, Slivers shook Billy off his shoulder and took a long drink.
Meanwhile Mr Villiers, dreading lest his courage should give way, went to the nearest hotel and drank pretty freely so that he might bring himself into an abnormal condition of bravery. Thus primed, he went to the railway station, took the train to the Pactolus claim, and on arriving at the end of his journey had one final glass of whisky to steady his nerves.
The last straw, however, breaks the camel’s back, and this last drink reduced Mr Villiers to that mixed state which is known in colonial phrase as half-cocked. He lurched out of the hotel, and went in the direction of the Pactolus claim. His only difficulty was that, as a matter of fact, the solitary mound of white earth which marked the entrance to the mine, suddenly appeared before his eyes in a double condition, and he beheld two Pactolus claims, which curious optical delusion rather confused him, inasmuch as he was undecided to which he should go.
‘Itsh the drinksh,’ he said at length, stopping in the middle of the white dusty road, and looking preternaturally solemn; ‘it maksh me see double: if I see my wife, I’ll see two of her, then’— with a drunken giggle —‘I’ll be a bigamist.’
This idea so tickled him, that he commenced to laugh, and, finding it inconvenient to do so on his legs, he sat down to indulge his humour freely. A laughing jackass perched on the fence at the side of the road heard Mr Villiers’ hilarity, and, being of a convivial turn of mind itself, went off into fits of laughter also. On hearing this echo Mr Villiers tried to get up, in order to punish the man who mocked him, but, though his intentions were good, his legs were unsteady, and after one or two ineffectual attempts to rise he gave it up as a bad job. Then rolling himself a little to one side of the dusty white road, he went sound asleep, with his head resting on a tuft of green grass. In his white linen suit he was hardly distinguishable in the fine white dust of the road, and though the sun blazed hotly down on him and the mosquitos stung him, yet he slept calmly on, and it was not till nearly four o’clock in the afternoon that he woke up. He was more sober, but still not quite steady, being in that disagreeable temper to which some men are subject when suffering a recovery. Rising to his feet, with a hearty curse, he picked up his hat and put it on; then, thrusting his hands into his pockets, he slouched slowly along, bent upon meeting his wife and picking a quarrel with her.
Unluckily for Madame Midas, she had that day been to Ballarat, and was just returning. She had gone by train, and was now leaving the station and walking home to the Pactolus along the road. Being absorbed in thought, she did not notice the dusty figure in front of her, otherwise she would have been sure to have recognised her husband, and would have given him a wide berth by crossing the fields instead of going by the road. Mr Villiers, therefore, tramped steadily on towards the Pactolus, and his wife tramped steadily after him, until at last, at the turn of the road where it entered her property, she overtook him.
A shudder of disgust passed through her frame as she raised her eyes and saw him, and she made a sudden gesture as though to fall behind and thus avoid him. It was, however, too late, for Mr Villiers, hearing footsteps, turned suddenly and saw the woman he had come to see standing in the middle of the road.
Husband and wife stood gazing at one another for a few moments in silence, she looking at him with an expression of intense loathing on her fine face, and he vainly trying to assume a dignified carriage — a task which his late fit of drunkenness rendered difficult.
At last, his wife, drawing her dress together as though his touch would have contaminated her, tried to pass, but on seeing this he sprang forward, before she could change her position, and caught her wrist.
‘Not yet!’ he hissed through his clenched teeth; ‘first you must have a word with me.’
Madame Midas looked around for aid, but no one was in sight. They were some distance from the Pactolus, and the heat of the afternoon being intense, every one was inside. At last Madame saw some man moving towards them, down the long road which led to the station, and knowing that Vandeloup had been into town, she prayed in her heart that it might be he, and so prepared to parley with her husband till he should come up. Having taken this resolution, she suddenly threw off Villiers’ grasp, and turned towards him with a superb gesture of scorn.
‘What do you want?’ she asked in a low, clear voice, but in a tone of concentrated passion.
‘Money!’ growled Villiers, insolently planting himself directly in front of her, ‘and I’m going to have it.’
‘Money!’ she echoed, in a tone of bitter irony; ‘have you not had enough yet? Have you not squandered every penny I had from my father in your profligacy and evil companions? What more do you want?’
‘A share in the Pactolus,’ he said, sullenly.
His wife laughed scornfully. ‘A share in the Pactolus!’ she echoed, with bitter sarcasm, ‘A modest request truly. After squandering my fortune, dragging me through the mire, and treating me like a slave, this man expects to be rewarded. Listen to me, Randolph Villiers,’ she said, fiercely, stepping up to him and seizing his hand, ‘this land we now stand on is mine — the gold underneath is mine; and if you were to go on your knees to me and beg for a morsel of bread to save you from starving, I would not lift one finger to succour you.’
Villiers writhed like a snake under her bitter scorn.
‘I understand,’ he said, in a taunting tone; ‘you want it for your lover.’
‘My lover? What do you mean?’
‘What I say,’ he retorted boldly, ‘all Ballarat knows the position that young Frenchman holds in the Pactolus claim.’
Mrs Villiers felt herself grow faint — the accusation was so horrible. This man, who had embittered her life from the time she married him, was still her evil genius, and was trying to ruin her in the eyes of the world. The man she had seen on the road was now nearly up to them, and with a revulsion of feeling she saw that it was Vandeloup. Recovering herself with an effort, she turned and faced him steadily.
‘You lied when you spoke just now,’ she said in a quiet voice. ‘I will not lower myself to reply to your accusation; but, as there is a God above us, if you dare to cross my path again, I will kill you.’
She looked so terrible when she said this that Villiers involuntarily drew back, but recovering himself in a moment, he sprang forward and caught her arm.
‘You devil! I’ll make you pay for this,’ and he twisted her arm till she thought it was broken. ‘You’ll kill me, will you? — you! — you!’ he shrieked, still twisting her arm and causing her intense pain, ‘you viper!’
Suddenly, when Madame was almost fainting with pain, she heard a shout, and knew that Vandeloup had come to the rescue. He had recognised Madame Midas down the road, and saw that her companion was threatening her; so he made all possible speed, and arrived just in time.
Madame turned round to see Vandeloup throw her husband into a ditch by the side of the road, and walk towards her. He was not at all excited, but seemed as cool and calm as if he had just been shaking hands with Mr Villiers instead of treating him violently.
‘You had better go home, Madame,’ he said, in his usual cool voice, ‘and leave me to deal with this — gentleman; you are not hurt?’
‘Only my arm,’ replied Mrs Villiers, in a faint voice; ‘he nearly broke it. But I can walk home alone.’
‘If you can, do so,’ said Vandeloup, with a doubtful look at her. ‘I will send him away.’
‘Don’t let him hurt you.’
‘I don’t think there’s much danger,’ replied the young man, with a glance at his arms, ‘I’m stronger than I look.’
‘Thank you, Monsieur,’ said Madame Midas, giving him her hand; ‘you have rendered me a great service, and one I will not forget.’
He bent down and kissed her hand, which action was seen by Mr Villiers as he crawled out of the ditch. When Madame Midas was gone and Vandeloup could see her walking homeward, he turned to look for Mr Villiers, and found him seated on the edge of the ditch, all covered with mud and streaming with water — presenting a most pitiable appearance. He regarded M. Vandeloup in a most malignant manner, which, however, had no effect on that young gentleman, who produced a cigarette, and having lighted it proceeded to talk.
‘I’m sorry I can’t offer you one,’ said Gaston, affably, ‘but I hardly think you would enjoy it in your present damp condition. If I might be permitted to suggest anything,’ with a polite smile, ‘a bath and a change of clothes would be most suitable to you, and you will find both at Ballarat. I also think,’ said Vandeloup, with an air of one who thinks deeply, ‘that if you hurry you will catch the next train, which will save you a rather long walk.’
Mr Villiers glared at his tormentor in speechless anger, and tried to look dignified, but, covered as he was with mud, his effort was not successful.
‘Do you know who I am?’ he said at length, in a blustering manner.
‘Under some circumstances,’ said M. Vandeloup, in a smooth voice, ‘I should have taken you for a mud bank, but as you both speak and smile I presume you are a man of the lowest type; as you English yourselves say — a blackguard.’
‘I’ll smash you!’ growled Villiers, stepping forward.
‘I wouldn’t try if I were you,’ retorted Vandeloup, with a disparaging glance. ‘I am young and strong, almost a total abstainer; you, on the contrary, are old and flabby, with the shaking nerves of an incurable drunkard. No, it would be hardly fair for me to touch you.’
‘You dare not lay a finger on me,’ said Villiers, defiantly.
‘Quite right,’ replied Vandeloup, lighting another cigarette, ‘you’re rather too dirty for close companionship. I really think you’d better go; Monsieur Sleeves no doubt expects you.’
‘And this is the man that I obtained work for,’ said Mr Villiers, addressing the air.
‘It’s a very ungrateful world,’ said Vandeloup, calmly, with a shrug of his shoulders; ‘I never expect anything from it; I’m sorry if you do, for you are sure to be disappointed.’
Villiers, finding he could make nothing out of the imperturbable coolness of the young Frenchman, turned to go, but as he went, said spitefully —
‘You can tell my wife I’ll pay her for this.’
‘Accounts are paid on Saturdays,’ called out M. Vandeloup, gaily; ‘if you call I will give you a receipt of the same kind as you had to-day.’
Villiers made no response, as he was already out of hearing, and went on his way to the station with mud on his clothes and rage in his heart.
Vandeloup looked after him for a few minutes with a queer smile on his lips, then turned on his heel and walked home, humming a song.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09