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- Madame Midas - 4/63 -
'Devil! devil! devil!' screamed this amiable bird, flopping up and down on the floor. 'You're a liar! You're a liar! Pickles.'
Having delivered himself of this bad language, Billy waddled to his master's chair, and climbing up by the aid of his claws and beak, soon established himself in his old position. Slivers, however, was not attending to him, as he was leaning back in his chair drumming in an absent sort of way with his lean fingers on the table. His cork arm hung down limply, and his one eye was fixed on a letter lying in front of him. This was a communication from the manager of the Pactolus Mine requesting Slivers to get him more hands, and Slivers' thoughts had wandered away from the letter to the person who wrote it, and from thence to Madame Midas.
'She's a clever woman,' observed Slivers, at length, in a musing sort of tone, 'and she's got a good thing on in that claim if she only strikes the Lead.'
'Devil,' said Billy once more, in a harsh voice.
'Exactly,' answered Slivers, 'the Devil's Lead. Oh, Lord! what a fool I was not to have collared that ground before she did; but that infernal McIntosh never would tell me where the place was. Never mind, I'll be even with him yet; curse him.'
His expression of face was not pleasant as he said this, and he grasped the letter in front of him in a violent way, as if he were wishing his long fingers were round the writer's throat. Tapping with his wooden leg on the floor, he was about to recommence his musings, when he heard a step in the passage, and the door of his office being pushed violently open, a man entered without further ceremony, and flung himself down on a chair near the window.
'Fire!' said Billy, on seeing this abrupt entry; 'how's your mother!--Ballarat and Bendigo--Bendigo and Ballarat.'
The newcomer was a man short and powerfully built, dressed in a shabby-genteel sort of way, with a massive head covered with black hair, heavy side whiskers and moustache, and a clean shaved chin, which had that blue appearance common to very dark men who shave. His mouth--that is, as much as could be seen of it under the drooping moustache--was weak and undecided, and his dark eyes so shifty and restless that they seemed unable to meet a steady gaze, but always looked at some inanimate object that would not stare them out of countenance.
'Well, Mr Randolph Villiers,' croaked Slivers, after contemplating his visitor for a few moments, 'how's business?'
'Infernally bad,' retorted Mr Villiers, pulling out a cigar and lighting it. 'I've lost twenty pounds on those Moscow shares.'
'More fool you,' replied Slivers, courteously, swinging round in his chair so as to face Villiers. 'I could have told you the mine was no good; but you will go on your own bad judgment.'
'It's like getting blood out of a stone to get tips from you,' growled Villiers, with a sulky air. 'Come now, old boy,' in a cajoling manner, 'tell us something good--I'm nearly stone broke, and I must live.'
'I'm hanged if I see the necessity,' malignantly returned Slivers, unconsciously quoting Voltaire; 'but if you do want to get into a good thing--'
'Yes! yes!' said the other, eagerly bending forward.
'Get an interest in the Pactolus,' and the agreeable old gentleman leaned back and laughed loudly in a raucous manner at his visitor's discomfited look.
'You ass,' hissed Mr Villiers, between his closed teeth; 'you know as well as I do that my infernal wife won't look at me.'
'Ho, ho!' laughed the cockatoo, raising his yellow crest in an angry manner; 'devil take her--rather!'
'I wish he would!' muttered Villiers, fervently; then with an uneasy glance at Billy, who sat on the old man's shoulder complacently ruffling his feathers, he went on: 'I wish you'd screw that bird's neck, Slivers; he's too clever by half.'
Slivers paid no attention to this, but, taking Billy off his shoulder, placed him on the floor, then turned to his visitor and looked at him fixedly with his bright eye in such a penetrating manner that Villiers felt it go through him like a gimlet.
'I hate your wife,' said Slivers, after a pause.
'Why the deuce should you?' retorted Villiers, sulkily. 'You ain't married to her.'
'I wish I was,' replied Slivers with a chuckle. 'A fine woman, my good sir! Why, if I was married to her I wouldn't sneak away whenever I saw her. I'd go up to the Pactolus claim and there I'd stay.'
'It's easy enough talking,' retorted Villiers crossly, 'but you don't know what a fiend she is! Why do you hate her?'
'Because I do,' retorted Slivers. 'I hate her; I hate McIntosh; the whole biling of them; they've got the Pactolus claim, and if they find the Devil's Lead they'll be millionaires.'
'Well,' said the other, quite unmoved, 'all Ballarat knows that much.'
'But I might have had it!' shrieked Slivers, getting up in an excited manner, and stumping up and down the office. 'I knew Curtis, McIntosh and the rest were making their pile, but I couldn't find out where; and now they're all dead but McIntosh, and the prize has slipped through my fingers, devil take them!'
'Devil take them,' echoed the cockatoo, who had climbed up again on the table, and was looking complacently at his master.
'Why don't you ruin your wife, you fool?' said Slivers, turning vindictively on Villiers. 'You ain't going to let her have all the money while you are starving, are you?'
'How the deuce am I to do that?' asked Villiers, sulkily, relighting his cigar.
'Get the whip hand of her,' snarled Slivers, viciously; 'find out if she's in love, and threaten to divorce her if she doesn't go halves.'
'There's no chance of her having any lovers,' retorted Villiers; 'she's a piece of ice.'
'Ice melts,' replied Slivers, quickly. 'Wait till "Mr Right" comes along, and then she'll begin to regret being married to you, and then--'
'You'll have the game in your own hands,' hissed the wicked old man, rubbing his hands. 'Oh!' he cried, spinning round on his wooden leg, 'it's a lovely idea. Wait till we meet "Mr Right", just wait,' and he dropped into his chair quite overcome by the state of excitement he had worked himself into.
'If you've quite done with those gymnastics, my friend,' said a soft voice near the door, 'perhaps I may enter.'
Both the inmates of the office looked up at this, and saw that two men were standing at the half-open door--one an extremely handsome young man of about thirty, dressed in a neat suit of blue serge, and wearing a large white wide-awake hat, with a bird's-eye handkerchief twisted round it. His companion was short and heavily built, dressed somewhat the same, but with his black hat pulled down over his eyes.
'Come in,' growled Slivers, angrily, when he saw his visitors. 'What the devil do you want?'
'Work,' said the young man, advancing to the table. 'We are new arrivals in the country, and were told to come to you to get work.'
'I don't keep a factory,' snarled Slivers, leaning forward.
'I don't think I would come to you if you did,' retorted the stranger, coolly. 'You would not be a pleasant master either to look at or to speak to.'
Villiers laughed at this, and Slivers stared dumbfounded at being spoken to in such a manner.
'Devil,' broke in Billy, rapidly. 'You're a liar--devil.'
'Those, I presume, are your master's sentiments towards me,' said the young man, bowing gravely to the bird. 'But as soon as he recovers the use of his tongue, I trust he will tell us if we can get work or not.'
Slivers was just going to snap out a refusal, when he caught sight of McIntosh's letter on the table, and this recalled to his mind the conversation he had with Mr Villiers. Here was a young man handsome enough to make any woman fall in love with him, and who, moreover, had a clever tongue in his head. All Slivers' animosity revived against Madame Midas as he thought of the Devil's Lead, and he determined to use this young man as a tool to ruin her in the eyes of the world. With these thoughts in his mind, he drew a sheet of paper towards him, and dipping the rusty pen in the thick ink, prepared to question his visitors as to what they could do, with a view to sending them out to the Pactolus claim.
'Names?' he asked, grasping his pen firmly in his left hand.
'Mine,' said the stranger, bowing, 'is Gaston Vandeloup, my friend's Pierre Lemaire--both French.'
Slivers scrawled this down in the series of black scratches, which did duty with him for writing.
'Where do you come from?' was his next question.
'The story,' said M. Vandeloup, with suavity, 'is too long to repeat at present; but we came to-day from Melbourne.'
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