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- Madame Midas - 5/63 -


'What kind of work can you do?' asked Slivers, sharply.

'Anything that turns up,' retorted the Frenchman.

'I was addressing your companion, sir; not you,' snarled Slivers, turning viciously on him.

'I have to answer for both,' replied the young man, coolly, slipping one hand into his pocket and leaning up against the door in a negligent attitude, 'my friend is dumb.'

'Poor devil!' said Slivers, harshly.

'But,' went on Vandeloup, sweetly, 'his legs, arms, and eyes are all there.'

Slivers glared at this fresh piece of impertinence, but said nothing. He wrote a letter to McIntosh, recommending him to take on the two men, and handed it to Vandeloup, who received it with a bow.

'The price of your services, Monsieur?' he asked.

'Five bob,' growled Slivers, holding out his one hand.

Vandeloup pulled out two half-crowns and put them in the thin, claw- like fingers, which instantly closed on them.

'It's a mining place you're going to,' said Slivers, pocketing the money; 'the Pactolus claim. There's a pretty woman there. Have a drink?'

Vandeloup declined, but his companion, with a grunt, pushed past him, and filling a tumbler with the whisky, drank it off. Slivers looked ruefully at the bottle, and then hastily put it away, in case Vandeloup should change his mind and have some.

Vandeloup put on his hat and went to the door, out of which Pierre had already preceded him.

'I trust, gentlemen,' he said, with a graceful bow, 'we shall meet again, and can then discuss the beauty of this lady to whom Mr Slivers alludes. I have no doubt he is a judge of beauty in others, though he is so incomplete himself.'

He went out of the door, and then Slivers sprang up and rushed to Villiers.

'Do you know who that is?' he asked, in an excited manner, pulling his companion to the window.

Villiers looked through the dusty panes, and saw the young Frenchman walking away, as handsome and gallant a man as he had ever seen, followed by the slouching figure of his friend.

'Vandeloup,' he said, turning to Slivers, who was trembling with excitement.

'No, you fool,' retorted the other, triumphantly. That is "Mr Right".'

CHAPTER III

MADAME MIDAS AT HOME

Madame Midas was standing on the verandah of her cottage, staring far away into the distance, where she could see the tall chimney and huge mound of white earth which marked the whereabouts of the Pactolus claim. She was a tall voluptuous-looking woman of what is called a Junoesque type--decidedly plump, with firm white hands and well-formed feet. Her face was of a whitish tint, more like marble than flesh, and appeared as if modelled from the antique--with the straight Greek nose, high and smooth forehead, and full red mouth, with firmly-closed lips. She had dark and piercing eyes, with heavy arched eyebrows above them, and her hair, of a bluish-black hue, was drawn smoothly over the forehead, and coiled in thick wreaths at the top of her small, finely-formed head. Altogether a striking-looking woman, but with an absence of animation about her face, which had a calm, serene expression, effectually hiding any thoughts that might be passing in her mind, and which resembled nothing so much in its inscrutable look as the motionless calm which the old Egyptians gave to their sphinxes. She was dressed for coolness in a loose white dress, tied round her waist with a crimson scarf of Indian silk; and her beautifully modelled arms, bare to the elbow, and unadorned by any trinkets, were folded idly in front of her as she looked out at the landscape, which was mellowed and full of warmth under the bright yellow glare of the setting sun.

The cottage--for it was nothing else--stood on a slight rise immediately in front of a dark wood of tall gum-trees, and there was a long row of them on the right, forming a shelter against the winds, as if the wood had thrown a protecting arm around the cottage, and wanted to draw it closer to its warm bosom. The country was of an undulating character, divided into fields by long rows of gorse hedges, all golden with blossoms, which gave out a faint, peach-like odour. Some of these meadows were yellow with corn--some a dull red with sorrel, others left in their natural condition of bright green grass--while here and there stood up, white and ghost- like, the stumps of old trees, the last remnants of the forests, which were slowly retreating before the axe of the settler. These fields, which had rather a harlequin aspect with their varied colours, all melted together in the far distance into an indescribable neutral tint, and ended in the dark haze of the bush, which grew over all the undulating hills. On the horizon, however, at intervals, a keen eye could see some tall tree standing boldly up, outlined clearly against the pale yellow of the sky. There was a white dusty road or rather a track between two rough fences, with a wide space of green grass on each side, and here and there could be seen the cattle wandering idly homeward, lingering every now and then to pull at a particularly tempting tuft of bush grass growing in the moist ditches which ran along each side of the highway. Scattered over this pastoral-looking country were huge mounds of white earth, looking like heaps of carded wool, and at the end of each of these invariably stood a tall, ugly skeleton of wood. These marked the positions of the mines--the towers contained the winding gear, while the white earth was the clay called mulloch, brought from several hundred feet below the surface. Near these mounds were rough-looking sheds with tall red chimneys, which made a pleasant spot of colour against the white of the clay. On one of these mounds, rather isolated from the others, and standing by itself in the midst of a wide green paddock, Mrs Villiers' eyes were fixed, and she soon saw the dark figure of a man coming slowly down the white mound, along the green field and advancing slowly up the hill. When she saw him coming, without turning her head or raising her voice, she called out to someone inside,

'Archie is coming, Selina--you had better hurry up the tea, for he will be hungry after such a long day.'

The person inside made no answer save by an extra clatter of some domestic utensils, and Madame apparently did not expect a reply, for without saying anything else she walked slowly down the garden path, and leaned lightly over the gate, waiting for the newcomer, who was indeed none other than Archibald McIntosh, the manager of the Pactolus.

He was a man of about medium height, rather thin than otherwise, with a long, narrow-looking head and boldly cut features--clean shaved save for a frill of white hair which grew on his throat up the sides of his head to his ears, and which gave him rather a peculiar appearance, as if he had his jaw bandaged up. His eyes were grey and shrewd-looking, his lips were firmly compressed--in fact, the whole appearance of his face was obstinate--the face of a man who would stick to his opinions whatever anyone else might say to the contrary. He was in a rough miner's dress, all splashed with clay, and as he came up to the gate Madame could see he was holding something in his hand.

'D'ye no ken what yon may be?' he said, a smile relaxing his grim features as he held up a rather large nugget; ''tis the third yin this week!'

Madame Midas took the nugget from him and balanced it carefully in her hand, with a thoughtful look in her face, as if she was making a mental calculation.

'About twenty to twenty-five ounces, I should say,' she observed in her soft low voice; 'the last we had was fifteen, and the one before twenty--looks promising for the gutter, doesn't it?'

'Well, I'll no say but what it micht mean a deal mair,' replied McIntosh, with characteristic Scotch caution, as he followed Madame into the house; 'it's no a verra bad sign, onyhow; I winna say but what we micht be near the Devil's Lead.'

'And if we are?' said Madame, turning with a smile.

'Weel, mem, ye'll have mair siller nor ye'll ken what to dae wi', an' 'tis to be hoped ye'll no be making a fool of yersel.'

Madame laughed--she was used to McIntosh's plain speaking, and it in no wise offended her. In fact, she preferred it very much more than being flattered, as people's blame is always genuine, their praise rarely so. At all events she was not displeased, and looked after him with a smile in her dark eyes as he disappeared into the back kitchen to make himself decent for tea. Madame herself sat down in an arm-chair in the bow window, and watched Selina preparing the meal.

Selina Jane Sprotts, who now acted as servant to Mrs Villiers, was rather an oddity in her way. She had been Madame's nurse, and had followed her up to Ballarat, with the determination of never leaving her. Selina was a spinster, as her hand had never been sought in marriage, and her personal appearance was certainly not very fascinating. Tall and gaunt, she was like a problem from Euclid, all angles, and the small quantity of grey hair she possessed was screwed into a hard lump at the back of her head. Her face was reddish in colour, and her mouth prim and pursed up, as if she was afraid of saying too much, which she need not have been, as she rarely spoke, and was as economical of her words as she was of everything else. She was much given to quoting proverbs, and hurled these prepared little pieces of wisdom on every side like pellets out of a pop-gun. Conversation which consists mainly of proverbs is rarely exhilarating; consequently Miss Sprotts was not troubled to talk much, either by Madame or McIntosh.

Miss Sprotts moved noiselessly about the small room, in a


Madame Midas - 5/63

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