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- Madame Midas - 20/63 -


'Do you see these?' he asked, touching the white blossoms with the cigarette he held between his fingers.

Pierre intimated that he did.

'From the plant of these, my friend,' said Vandeloup, looking at them critically, 'I can prepare a vegetable poison as deadly as any of Caesar Borgia's. It is a powerful narcotic, and leaves hardly any trace. Having been a medical student, you know,' he went on, conversationally, 'I made quite a study of toxicology, and the juice of this plant,' touching the white flower, 'has done me good service, although it was the cause of my exile to New Caledonia. Well,' with a shrug of the shoulders as he put the flowers back in his coat, 'it is always something to have in reserve; I did not know that I could get this plant here, my friend. But now that I have I will prepare a little of this poison,--it will always be useful in emergencies.'

Pierre looked steadily at the young man, and then slipping his hand behind his back he drew forth from the waistband of his trousers a long, sharp, cruel-looking knife, which for safety had a leather sheath. Drawing this off, the dumb man ran his thumb along the keen edge, and held the knife out towards Vandeloup, who refused it with a cynical smile.

'You don't believe in this, I can see,' he said, touching the dainty bunch of flowers as Pierre put the knife in its sheath again and returned it to its hiding-place. 'I'm afraid your ideas are still crude--you believe in the good old-fashioned style of blood-letting. Quite a mistake, I assure you; poison is much more artistic and neat in its work, and to my mind involves less risk. You see, my Pierre,' he continued, lazily watching the blue wreaths of smoke from his cigarette curl round his head, 'crime must improve with civilization; and since the Cain and Abel epoch we have refined the art of murder in a most wonderful manner--decidedly we are becoming more civilized; and now, my friend,' in a kind tone, laying his slender white hand on the shoulder of the dumb man, 'you must really take a little rest, for I have no doubt but what you will need all your strength tonight should M. Villiers prove obstinate. Of course,' with a shrug, 'if he does not succeed in getting the nugget, our time will be simply wasted, and then,' with a gay smile, touching the flowers, 'I will see what I can do in the artistic line.'

Pierre lay down again on the bed, and turning his face to the wall fell fast asleep, while M. Vandeloup, humming a merry tune, walked gaily out of the room to the bar, and asked Miss Twexby for another drink.

'Brandy and soda this time, please,' he said, lazily lighting another cigarette; 'this heat is so enervating, and I'm going to walk up to Black Hill. By the way, Mademoiselle,' he went on, as she opened the soda water, 'as I see there are two beds in my friend's room I will stay here all night.'

'You shall have the best room,' said Martha, decisively, as she handed him the brandy and soda.

'You are too kind,' replied M. Vandeloup, coolly, as he took the drink from her, 'but I prefer to stay with my silent friend. He was one of the sailors in the ship when I was wrecked, as you have no doubt heard, and looks upon me as a sort of fetish.'

Miss Twexby knew all about the wreck, and thought it was beautiful that he should condescend to be so friendly with a common sailor. Vandeloup received all her speeches with a polite smile, then set down his empty glass and prepared to leave.

'Mademoiselle,' he said, touching the flowers, 'you see I still have them--they will remind me of you,' and raising his hat he strolled idly out of the hotel, and went off in the direction of the Black Hill.

Miss Twexby ran to the door, and shading her eyes with her hands from the blinding glare of the sun, she watched him lounging along the street, tall, slender, and handsome.

'He's just lovely,' she said to herself, as she returned to the bar 'but his eyes are so wicked; I don't think he's a good young man.'

What would she have said if she had heard the conversation in the bedroom?

CHAPTER XI

THEODORE WOPPLES, ACTOR

Mr Villiers walked in a leisurely manner along the lower part of the town, with the intent of going up to his destination through the old mining gully. He took this route for two reasons--first, because the afternoon was hot, and it was easier climbing up that way than going by the ordinary road; and, second, on his journey through the chasm he would be able to mark some place where he could hide the nugget. With his stick under his arm, Mr Villiers trudged merrily along in a happy humour, as if he was bent on pleasure instead of robbery. And after all, as he said to himself, it could not be called a genuine robbery, as everything belonging to his wife was his by right of the marriage service, and he was only going to have his own again. With this comfortable thought he climbed slowly up the broken tortuous path which led to the Black Hill, and every now and then would pause to rest, and admire the view.

It was now nearly six o'clock, and the sun was sinking amid a blaze of splendour. The whole of the western sky was a sea of shimmering gold, and this, intensified near the horizon to almost blinding brightness, faded off towards the zenith of the sky into a delicate green, and thence melted imperceptibly into a cold blue.

Villiers, however, being of the earth, earthy, could not be troubled looking very long at such a common-place sight as a sunset; the same thing occurred every evening, and he had more important things to do than to waste his time gratifying his artistic eye. Arriving on the plateau of earth just in front of the gully, he was soon entering the narrow gorge, and tramped steadily along in deep thought, with bent head and wrinkled brows. The way being narrow, and Villiers being preoccupied, it was not surprising that as a man was coming down in the opposite direction, also preoccupied, they should run against one another. When this took place it gave Mr Villiers rather a start, as it suggested a possible witness to the deed he contemplated, a thing for which he was by no means anxious.

'Really, sir,' said the stranger, in a rich, rolling voice, and in a dignified tone, 'I think you might look where you are going. From what I saw of you, your eyes were not fixed on the stars, and thus to cause your unwatched feet to stumble; in fact,' said the speaker, looking up to the sky, 'I see no stars whereon you could fix your gaze.'

This somewhat strange mode of remonstrance was delivered in a solemn manner, with appropriate gestures, and tickled Mr Villiers so much that he leaned up against a great rock abutting on the path, and laughed long and loudly.

'That is right, sir,' said the stranger, approvingly; 'laughter is to the soul what food is to the body. I think, sir,' in a Johnsonian manner, 'the thought is a happy one.'

Villiers assented with a nod, and examined the speaker attentively. He was a man of medium height, rather portly than otherwise, with a clean-shaved face, clearly-cut features, and two merry grey eyes, which twinkled like stars as they rested on Villiers. His hair was greyish, and inclined to curl, but could not follow its natural inclination owing to the unsparing use of the barber's shears. He wore a coat and trousers of white flannel, but no waistcoat; canvas shoes were on his feet, and a juvenile straw hat was perched on his iron-grey hair, the rim of which encircled his head like a halo of glory. He had small, well-shaped hands, one of which grasped a light cane, and the other a white silk pocket handkerchief, with which he frequently wiped his brow. He seemed very hot, and, leaning on the opposite side of the path against a rock, fanned himself first with his handkerchief and then with his hat, all the time looking at Mr Villiers with a beaming smile. At last he took a silver-mounted flask from his pocket and offered it to Villiers, with a pleasant bow.

'It's very hot, you know,' he said, in his rich voice, as Villiers accepted the flask.

'What, this?' asked Villiers, indicating the flask, as he slowly unscrewed the top.

'No; the day, my boy, the day. Ha! ha! ha!' said the lively stranger, going off into fits of laughter, which vibrated like small thunder amid the high rocks surrounding them. 'Good line for a comedy, I think. Ha! ha!--gad, I'll make a note of it,' and diving into one of the pockets of his coat, he produced therefrom an old letter, on the back of which he inscribed the witticism with the stump of a pencil.

Meanwhile Villiers, thinking the flask contained brandy, or at least whisky, took a long drink of it, but found to his horror it was merely a weak solution of sherry and water.

'Oh, my poor stomach,' he gasped, taking the flask from his lips.

'Colic?' inquired the stranger with a pleasant smile, as he put back the letter and pencil, 'hot water fomentations are what you need. Wonderful cure. Will bring you to life again though you were at your last gasp. Ha!' struck with a sudden idea, '"His Last Gasp", good title for a melodrama--mustn't forget that,' and out came the letter and the pencil again.

Mr Villiers explained in a somewhat gruff tone that it was not colic, but that his medical attendant allowed him to drink nothing but whisky.

'To be taken twenty times a day, I presume,' observed the stranger, with a wink; 'no offence meant, sir,' as Villiers showed a disposition to resent this, 'merely a repartee. Good for a comedy, I fancy; what do you think?'

'I think,' said Mr Villiers, handing him back the flask, 'that you're very eccentric.'

'Eccentric?' replied the other, in an airy tone, 'not at all, sir. I'm merely a civilized being with the veneer off. I am not hidden


Madame Midas - 20/63

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