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- Madame Midas - 40/63 -
Meddlechip sank back into his chair with a groan, while his relentless enemy curled himself up on the sofa in a more comfortable position and began to talk.
'We will begin the story,' said M. Vandeloup, in a conversational tone, with an airy wave of his delicate white hand, 'in the good old-fashioned style of our fairy tales. Once upon a time--let us say three years ago--there lived in Paris a young man called Octave Braulard, who was well born and comfortably off. He had a fancy to be a doctor, and was studying for the medical profession when he became entangled with a woman. Mademoiselle Adele Blondet was a charmingly ugly actress, who was at that time the rage of Paris. She attracted all the men, not by her looks, but by her tongue. Octave Braulard,' went on M. Vandeloup, complacently looking at himself, 'was handsome, and she fell in love with him. She became his mistress, and caused a nine days' wonder in Paris by remaining constant to him for six months. Then there came to Paris an English gentleman from Australia--name, Kestrike; position, independent; income, enormous. He had left Madame his wife in London, and came to our wicked Paris to amuse himself. He saw Adele Blondet, and was introduced to her by Braulard; result, Kestrike betrayed his friend Braulard by stealing from him his mistress. Why was this? Was Kestrike handsome? No. Was he fascinating? No. Was he rich? Yes. Therein lay the secret; Adele loved the purse, not the man. Braulard,' said Gaston, rising from the sofa quickly and walking across the room, 'felt his honour wounded. He remonstrated with Adele, no use; he offered to fight a duel with the perfidious Kestrike, no use; the thief was a coward.'
'No,' cried Meddlechip, rising, 'no coward.'
'I say, yes!' said Vandeloup, crossing to him, and forcing him back in his chair; 'he betrayed his friend and refused to give him the satisfaction of a gentleman. What did Braulard do? Rest quiet? No. Revenge his honour? Yes! One night,' pursued Gaston, in a low concentrated voice, grasping Meddlechip's wrist firmly, and looking at him with fiery eyes, 'Braulard prepared a poison, a narcotic which was quick in its action, fatal in its results. He goes to the house of Adele Blondet at half-past twelve o'clock--the hour now,' he said, rapidly swinging round and pointing to the clock on the mantelpiece, which had just struck the half-hour; 'he found them at supper,' releasing Meddlechip's wrist and crossing to the sofa; 'he sat opposite Kestrike, as he does now,' leaning forward and glaring at Meddlechip, who shrank back in his chair. 'Adele, at the head of the table, laughs and smiles; she looks at her old lover and sees murder in his face; she is ill and retires to her room. Kestrike follows her to see what is the matter. Braulard is left alone; he produces a bottle and pours its contents into a cup of coffee, waiting for Adele. Kestrike returns, saying Adele is ill; she wants a drink. He takes her the poisoned cup of coffee; she drinks it and falls'--with a long breath--'asleep. Kestrike returns to the room, asks Braulard to leave the house. Braulard refuses. Kestrike is afraid, and would leave himself; he rises from the table; so does Braulard;'--here Gaston rose and crossed to Meddlechip, who was also on his feet--'he goes to Kestrike, seizes his wrist, thus--drags him to the bedroom, and there on the bed lies Adele Blonde--dead--killed by the poison of one lover given her by the other--and the murderers look at one another--thus.'
Meddlechip wrenched his hand from Vandeloup's iron grip and fell back ghastly white in his chair, with a strangled cry, while the Frenchman stood over him with eyes gleaming with hatred.
'Kestrike,' pursued Vandeloup, rapidly, 'is little known in Paris-- his name is an assumed one--he leaves France before the police can discover how he has poisoned Adele Blondet, and crosses to England-- meets Madame, his wife, and returns to Australia, where he is called--Meddlechip.'
The man in the chair threw up his hands as if to keep the other off, and uttered a stifled cry.
'He then goes to China,' went on Gaston, bending nearer to the shrinking figure, 'and returns after twelve months, where he meets Octave Braulard in the theatre--yes, the two murderers meet in Melbourne! How came Braulard here? Was it chance? No. Was it design? No. Was it Fate? Yes.'
He hissed the words in Meddlechip's ear, and the wretched man shrank away from him again.
'Braulard,' pursued Vandeloup, in a calmer tone, 'also left the house of Adele Blondet. She is found dead; one of her lovers cannot be found; the other, Braulard, is accused of the crime; he defies the police to prove it; she has been poisoned. Bah! there is no trace. Braulard will be free. Stop! who is this man called Prevol, who appears? He is a fellow student of Braulard's, and knows the poison. Braulard is lost! Prevol examines the body, proves that poison has been given--by whom? Braulard, and none other. He is sentenced to death; but he is so handsome that Paris urges pardon. No; it is not according to the law. Still, spare his life? Yes. His life is spared. The galleys at Toulon? No. New Caledonia? Yes. He is sent there. But is Braulard a coward? No. Does he rest as a convict? No. He makes friends with another convict; they steal a boat, and fly from the island; they drift, and drift, for days and days; the sun rises, the sun sets--still they drift; their food is giving out, the water in the barrel is low--God! are they to die of thirst and famine? No. The sky is red--like blood--the sun is sinking; land is in the distance--they are saved!' falling on his knees; 'they are saved, thank God!'
Meddlechip, who had recovered himself, wiped his face with his handkerchief, and sneered with his white lips at the theatrical way Gaston was behaving in. Vandeloup saw this, and, springing to his feet, crossed to the millionaire.
'Braulard,' he continued, quickly, 'lands on the coast of Queensland; he comes to Sydney--no work; to Melbourne--no work; he goes to Ball'rat--work there at a gold-mine. Braulard takes the name of Vandeloup and makes money; he comes to Melbourne, lives there a year, he is in want of money, he is in despair; at the theatre he overhears a plan which will give him money, but he needs capital-- despair again, he will never get it. Aha! Fate once more intervenes- -he sees M. Kestrike, now Meddlechip, he will ask him for the money, and the question is, will he get it? So the story is at an end.' He ended with his usual smile, all his excitement having passed away, and lounging over to the supper-table lit a cigarette and sat down on the sofa.
Meddlechip sat silently looking at the disordered supper-table and thinking deeply. The dishes were scattered about the white cloth, and some vividly red cherries had fallen down from the fruit dish in the centre, some salt was spilt near his elbow, the napkins, twisted into thin wisps, were lying among the dirty dishes, and the champagne glasses, half filled with the straw-coloured wine, were standing near the empty bottles. Meddlechip thought for a few moments, and then looked up suddenly in a cool, collected, business- like manner.
'As I understand you,' he said, in a steady voice, 'the case stands thus: you know a portion, or rather, I should say, an episode of my life, I would gladly forget. I did not commit the murder.'
'No, but you gave her the poison.'
'Innocently I did, I confess.'
'Bah! who will believe that?' retorted M. Vandeloup, with a shrug; 'but never mind this at present; let me hear what you intend to do.'
'You know a secret,' said Meddlechip, nervously, 'which is dangerous to me; you want to sell it; well, I will be the buyer--name your price.'
'Five hundred pounds,' said Vandeloup, quietly.
'Is that all?' asked the other, with a start of surprise; 'I was prepared for five thousand.'
'I am not exorbitant in my demands,' answered Vandeloup, smoothly; 'and as I told you, I have a scheme on hand by which I may make a lot of money-five hundred pounds is sufficient to do what I want. If the scheme succeeds, I will be rich enough to do without any more money from you.'
'Yes; but if it fails?' said Meddlechip, doubtfully.
'If it fails, I will be obliged to draw on you again,' returned Gaston, candidly; 'you can't say, however, that I am behaving badly to you.'
'No,' answered Meddlechip, looking at him. 'I must say you are easier to deal with than I anticipated. Well, if I give you my cheque for five hundred--'
'Say six hundred,' observed Vandeloup, rising and going to a small table in the corner of the room on which were pens and ink. 'I want an extra hundred.'
'Six hundred then be it,' answered Meddlechip, quietly, rising and going to his overcoat, from whence he took his cheque book. 'For this amount you will be silent.'
M. Vandeloup bowed gracefully.
'On my word of honour,' he replied, gaily; 'but, of course,' with a sudden glance at Meddlechip, 'you will treat me as a friend--ask me to your house, and introduce me to Madame, your wife.'
'I don't see the necessity,' returned Meddlechip, angrily, going over to the small table and sitting down.
'Pardon me, I do' answered the Frenchman, with a dangerous gleam in his eyes.
'Well, well, I agree,' said Meddlechip, testily, taking up a pen and opening his cheque book. 'You, of course, can dictate your own terms.'
'I understand that perfectly,' replied Vandeloup, delicately, lighting a cigarette, 'and have done so. You can't say they are hard, as I said before.'
Meddlechip did not answer, but wrote out a cheque for six hundred pounds, and then handed it to Vandeloup, who received it with a bow and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket.
'With this,' he said, touching his pocket, 'I hope to make nearly ten thousand in a fortnight.'
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