It was a broiling hot day — one of those cloudless days, with the blazing sun beating down on the arid streets, and casting deep, black shadows — a real Australian December day dropped by mistake of the clerk of the weather into the middle of August. The previous week having been really chilly, it was all the more welcome.
It was Saturday morning, and fashionable Melbourne was “doing the Block.” Collins Street is to the Southern city what Bond Street and the Row are to London, and the Boulevards to Paris.
It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk. The same thing no doubt occurred in the Appian Way, the fashionable street of Imperial Rome, when Catullus talked gay nonsense to Lesbia, and Horace received the congratulations of his friends over his new volume of society verses. History repeats itself, and every city is bound by all the laws of civilisation to have one special street, wherein the votaries of fashion can congregate.
Collins Street is not, of course, such a grand thoroughfare as those above mentioned, but the people who stroll up and down the broad pavement are quite as charmingly dressed, and as pleasant as any of the peripatetics of those famous cities. As the sun brings out bright flowers, so the seductive influence of the hot weather had brought out all the ladies in gay dresses of innumerable colours, which made the long street look like a restless rainbow.
Carriages were bowling smoothly along, their occupants smiling and bowing as they recognised their friends on the side walk. Lawyers, their legal quibbles finished for the week, were strolling leisurely with their black bags in their hands; portly merchants, forgetting Flinder’s Lane and incoming ships, walked beside their pretty daughters; and the representatives of swelldom were stalking along in their customary apparel of curly brimmed hats, high collars, and immaculate suits. Altogether, it was a pleasant and animated scene, which would have delighted the heart of anyone who was not dyspeptic, or in love — dyspeptic people and lovers (disappointed ones, of course) being wont to survey the world in a cynical vein.
Madge Frettlby was engaged in that occupation so dear to every female heart — shopping. She was in Moubray, Rowan, and Hicks’, turning over ribbons and laces, while the faithful Brian waited for her outside, and amused himself by looking at the human stream which flowed along the pavement.
He disliked shopping quite as much as the majority of his sex, and though as a lover he felt a certain amount of self-abnegation to be becoming in him, it was difficult to drive away the thoughts of his pleasant club, where he could be reading and smoking, with, perchance, something cooling in a glass beside him.
However, after she had purchased a dozen or more articles she did not want, Madge remembered that Brian was waiting for her, and hurried to the door.
“I haven’t been many minutes, have I, dear?” she said, touching him lightly on the arm.
“Oh, dear no,” answered Brian, looking at his watch, “only thirty — a mere nothing, considering a new dress was being discussed.”
“I thought I had been longer,” said Madge, her brow clearing; “but still I am sure you feel a martyr.”
“Not at all,” replied Fitzgerald, handing her into the carriage; “I enjoyed myself very much.”
“Nonsense,” she laughed, opening her sunshade, while Brian took his seat beside her; “that’s one of those social stories — which every one considers themselves bound to tell from a sense of duty. I’m afraid I did keep you waiting — though, after all,” she went on, with a true feminine idea as to the flight of time, “I was only a few minutes.”
“And the rest,” said Brian, quizzically looking at her pretty face, so charmingly flushed under her great white hat.
Madge disdained to notice this interruption.
“James,” she cried to the coachman, “drive to the Melbourne Club. Papa will be there, you know,” she said to Brian, “and we’ll take him off to have tea with us.”
“But it’s only one o’clock,” said Brian, as the Town Hall clock came in sight. “Mrs. Sampson won’t be ready.”
“Oh, anything will do,” replied Madge, “a cup of tea and some thin bread and butter isn’t hard to prepare. I don’t feel like lunch, and papa eats so little in the middle of the day, and you — ”
“Eat a great deal at all times,” finished Brian with a laugh.
Madge went on chattering in her usual lively manner, and Brian listened to her with delight. Her pleasant talk drove away the evil spirit which had been with him for the last three weeks. Suddenly Madge made an observation as they were passing the Burke and Wills’ monument, which startled him.
“Isn’t that the place where Mr Whyte got into the cab?” she asked, looking at the corner near the Scotch Church, where a vagrant of musical tendencies was playing “Just before the Battle, Mother,” on a battered old concertina.
“So the papers say,” answered Brian, listlessly, without turning his head.
“I wonder who the gentleman in the light coat could have been,” said Madge, as she settled herself again.
“No one seems to know,” he replied evasively.
“Ah, but they have a clue,” she said. “Do you know, Brian,” she went on, “that he was dressed just like you in a light overcoat and soft hat?”
“How remarkable,” said Fitzgerald, speaking in a slightly sarcastic tone, and as calmly as he was able. “He was dressed in the same manner as nine out of every ten young fellows in Melbourne.”
Madge looked at him in surprise at the tone in which he spoke, so different from his usual nonchalant way of speaking. She was about to answer when the carriage stopped at the door of the Melbourne Club. Brian, anxious to escape any more remarks about the murder, sprang quickly out, and ran up the steps into the building. He found Mr. Frettlby smoking complacently, and reading the Age. As Fitzgerald entered he looked up, and putting down the paper, held out his hand, which the other took.
“Ah! Fitzgerald,” he said, “have you left the attractions of Collins Street for the still greater ones of Clubland?”
“Not I,” answered Brian. “I’ve come to carry you off to afternoon tea with Madge and myself.”
“I don’t mind,” answered Mr. Frettlby rising; “but, isn’t afternoon tea at half-past one rather an anomaly?”
“What’s in a name?” said Fitzgerald, absently, as they left the room. “What have you been doing all morning?”
“I’ve been in here for the last half-hour reading,” answered the other, carelessly.
“Wool market, I suppose?”
“No, the hansom cab murder.”
“Oh, d — that thing!” said Brian, hastily; then, seeing his companion looking at him in surprise, he apologised. “But, indeed,” he went on, “I’m nearly worried to death by people asking about Whyte, as if I knew all about him, whereas I know nothing.”
“Just as well you don’t,” answered Mr. Frettlby, as they descended the steps together; “he was not a very desirable companion.”
It was on the tip of Brian’s tongue to say, “And yet you wanted him to marry your daughter,” but he wisely refrained, and they reached the carriage in silence.
“Now then, papa,” said Madge, when they were all settled in the carriage, and it was rolling along smoothly in the direction of East Melbourne, “what have you been doing?”
“Enjoying myself,” answered her father, “until you and Brian came, and dragged me out into this blazing sunshine.”
“Well, Brian has been so good of late,” said Madge, “that I had to reward him, so I knew that nothing would please him better than to play host.”
“Certainly,” said Brian, rousing himself out of a fit of abstraction, “especially when one has such charming visitors.”
Madge laughed at this, and made a little grimace.
“If your tea is only equal to your compliments,” she said lightly, “I’m sure papa will forgive us for dragging him away from his club.”
“Papa will forgive anything,” murmured Mr. Frettlby, tilting his hat over his eyes, “so long as he gets somewhere out of the sun. I can’t say I care about playing the parts of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace of a Melbourne hot day.”
“There now, papa is quite a host in himself,” said Madge mischievously, as, the carriage drew up at Mrs. Sampson’s door.
“No, you are wrong,” said Brian, as he alighted and helped her out; “I am the host in myself this time.”
“If there is one thing I hate above another,” observed Miss Frettlby, calmly, “it’s a pun, and especially a bad one.”
Mrs. Sampson was very much astonished at the early arrival of her lodger’s guests, and did not hesitate to express her astonishment.
“Bein’ taken by surprise,” she said, with an apologetic cackle, “it ain’t to be suppose as miraculs can be performed with regard to cookin’, the fire havin’ gone out, not bein’ kept alight on account of the ’eat of the day, which was that ’ot as never was, tho’, to be sure, bein’ a child in the early days, I remember it were that ’ot as my sister’s aunt was in the ’abit of roastin’ her jints in the sun.”
After telling this last romance, and leaving her visitors in doubt whether the joints referred to belonged to an animal or to her sister’s aunt or to herself, Mrs. Sampson crackled away downstairs to get things ready.
“What a curious thing that landlady of yours is, Brian,” said Madge, from the depths of a huge arm-chair. “I believe she’s a grasshopper from the Fitzroy Gardens.”
“Oh, no, she’s a woman,” said Mr. Frettlby, cynically. “You can tell that by the length of her tongue.”
“A popular error, papa,” retorted Madge, sharply. “I know plenty of men who talk far more than any woman.”
“I hope I’ll never meet them, then,” said Mr. Frettlby, “for if I did I should be inclined to agree with De Quincey on murder as a fine art.”
Brian winced at this, and looked apprehensively at Madge, and saw with relief that she was not paying attention to her father, but was listening intently.
“There she is,” as a faint rustle at the door announced the arrival of Mrs. Sampson and the tea-tray. “I wonder, Brian, you don’t think the house is on fire with that queer noise always going on — she wants oil!”
“Yes, St. Jacob’s oil,” laughed Brian, as Mrs. Sampson entered, and placed her burden on the table.
“Not ’avin’ any cake,” said that lady, “thro’ not being forewarned as to the time of arrival — tho’ it’s not ofting I’m taken by surprise — except as to a ’eadache, which, of course, is accidental to every pusson — I ain’t got nothin’ but bread and butter, the baker and grocer both bein’ all that could be desired, except in the way of worryin’ for their money, which they thinks as ’ow I keeps the bank in the ’ouse, like Allading’s cave, as I’ve ’eard tell in the Arabian Nights, me ’avin’ gained it as a prize for English in my early girl’ood, bein’ then considered a scholard an’ industrus.”
Mrs. Sampson’s shrill apologies for the absence of cake having been received, she hopped out of the room, and Madge made the tea. The service was a quaint Chinese one, which Brian had picked up in his wanderings. He used it only on special occasions. As he watched Madge he could not help thinking how pretty she looked, with her hands moving deftly among the cups and saucers, so bizarre-looking with their sprawling dragons of yellow and green. He half smiled to himself as he thought, “If they knew all, I wonder if they would sit with me so unconcernedly.”
Mr. Frettlby, too, as he looked at his daughter, thought of his dead wife and sighed.
“Well,” said Madge, as she handed them their tea, and helped herself to some thin bread and butter, “you two gentlemen are most delightful company — papa is sighing like a furnace, and Brian is staring at me with his eyes like blue china saucers. You ought both to be turned forth to funerals like melancholy.”
“Why like melancholy?” queried Brian, lazily.
“I’m afraid, Mr. Fitzgerald,” said the young lady with a smile in her pretty black eyes, “that you are not a student of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’”
“Very likely not,” answered Brian; “midsummer out here is so hot that one gets no sleep, and, consequently no dreams. Depend upon it, if the four lovers whom Puck treated so badly had lived in Australia they wouldn’t have been able to sleep for the mosquitoes.”
“What nonsense you two young people do talk,” said Mr. Frettlby, with an amused smile, as he stirred his tea.
“Dulce est desipere in loco,” observed Brian, gravely, “a man who can’t carry out that observation is sure not to be up to much.”
“I don’t like Latin,” said Miss Frettlby, shaking her pretty head. “I agree with Heine’s remark, that if the Romans had been forced to learn it they would not have found time to conquer the world.”
“Which was a much more agreeable task,” said Brian.
“And more profitable,” finished Mr. Frettlby.
They chattered in this desultory fashion for a considerable time, till at last Madge rose and said they must go.
Brian proposed to dine with them at St. Kilda, and then they would all go to Brock’s Fireworks. Madge consented to this, and she was just pulling on her gloves when suddenly they heard a ring at the front door, and presently Mrs. Sampson talking in an excited manner at the pitch of her voice.
“You shan’t come in, I tell you,” they heard her say shrilly, “so it’s no good trying, which I’ve allays ’eard as an Englishman’s ’ouse is ’is castle, an’ you’re a-breakin’ the law, as well as a-spilin’ the carpets, which ’as bin newly put down.”
Some one made a reply; then the door of Brian’s room was thrown open, and Gorby walked in, followed by another man. Fitzgerald turned as white as a sheet, for he felt instinctively that they had come for him. However, pulling himself together, he demanded, in a haughty tone, the reason of the intrusion.
Mr. Gorby walked straight over to where Brian was standing, and placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“Brian Fitzgerald,” he said, in a clear voice, “I arrest you in the Queen’s name.”
“For what?” asked Brian, steadily.
“The murder of Oliver Whyte.”
At this Madge gave a cry.
“It is not true!” she said, wildly. “My God, it’s not true.”
Brian did not answer, but, ghastly pale, held out his hands. Gorby slipped the handcuffs on to his wrists with a feeling of compunction, despite his joy in running his Man down. This done, Fitzgerald turned round to where Madge was standing, pale and still, as though turned into stone.
“Madge,” he said, in a clear, low voice, “I am going to prison — perhaps to death; but I swear to you, by all that I hold most sacred, that I am innocent of this murder.”
“My darling!” She made a step forward, but her father stepped before her.
“Keep back,” he said, in a hard voice; “there is nothing between you and that man now.”
She turned round with an ashen face, but with a proud look in her clear eyes.
“You are wrong,” she answered, with a touch of scorn in her voice. “I love him more now than ever.” Then, before her father could stop her, she placed her arms round her lover’s neck, and kissed him wildly.
“My darling,” she said, with the tears streaming down her white cheeks, “whatever the world may say, you are always dearest of all to me.”
Brian kissed her passionately, and moved away. Madge fell down at her father’s feet in a dead faint.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09