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- Madame Midas - 6/63 -
wonderfully dextrous manner considering her height, and, after laying the table, placed the teapot on the hob to 'draw', thereby disturbing a cat and a dog who were lying in front of the fire--for there was a fire in the room in spite of the heat of the day, Selina choosing to consider that the house was damp. She told Madame she knew it was damp because her bones ached, and as she was mostly bones she certainly had a good opportunity of judging.
Annoyed at being disturbed by Miss Sprotts, the dog resigned his comfortable place with a plaintive growl, but the cat, of a more irritable temperament, set up and made a sudden scratch at her hand, drawing blood therefrom.
'Animals,' observed Selina, grimly, 'should keep their place;' and she promptly gave the cat a slap on the side of the head, which sent him over to Madame's feet, with an angry spit. Madame picked him up and soothed his ruffled feelings so successfully, that he curled himself up on her lap and went to sleep.
By-and-bye Archie, who had been making a great splashing in the back premises, came in looking clean and fresh, with a more obstinate look about his face than ever. Madame went to the tea-table and sat down, for she always had her meals with them, a fact of which they were very proud, and they always treated her with intense respect, though every now and then they were inclined to domineer. Archie, having seen that the food on the table was worth thanking God for, asked a blessing in a peremptory sort of manner, as if he thought Heaven required a deal of pressing to make it attentive. Then they commenced to eat in silence, for none of the party were very much given to speech, and no sound was heard save the rattling of the cups and saucers and the steady ticking of the clock. The window was open, and a faint breeze came in--cool and fragrant with the scent of the forest, and perfumed with the peach-like odour of the gorse blossoms. There was a subdued twilight through all the room, for the night was coming on, and the gleam of the flickering flames of the fire danced gaily against the roof and exaggerated all objects to an immense size. At last Archie pushed back his chair to show that he had finished, and prepared to talk.
'I dinna see ony new bodies coming,' he said, looking at his mistress. 'They, feckless things, that left were better than none, though they should hae been skelped for their idleness.'
'You have written to Slivers?' said Madame, raising her eyes.
'That wudden-legged body,' retorted McIntosh. 'Deed and I have, but the auld tyke hasna done onything to getting me what I want. Weel, weel,' in a resigned sort of a manner, 'we micht be waur off than we are, an' wha kens but what Providence will send us men by-and-bye?'
Selina looked up at this, saw her opportunity, and let slip an appropriate proverb.
'If we go by by-and-bye lane,' she said sharply, 'we come to the gate of never.'
This being undeniable, no one gave her the pleasure of contradicting her, for Archie knew it was impossible to argue with Selina, so handy was she with her proverbial wisdom--a kind of domestic Tupper, whose philosophy was of the most irritating and unanswerable kind. He did the wisest thing he could under the circumstances, and started a new subject.
'I say yon the day.'
'Yon' in this case meant Mr Villiers, whose name was tabooed in the house, and was always spoken of in a half-hinting kind of way. As both her servants knew all about her unhappy life, Madame did not scruple to talk to them.
'How was he looking?' she asked, smoothing the crumbs off her dress.
'Brawly,' replied Archie, rising; 'he lost money on that Moscow mine, but he made a fine haul owre the Queen o' Hearts claim.'
'The wicked,' observed Selina, 'flourish like a green bay tree.'
'Ou, ay,' retorted McIntosh, drily; 'we ken a' aboot that, Selina-- auld Hornie looks after his ain.'
'I think he leads a very hand-to-mouth existence,' said Madame, calmly; 'however rich he may become, he will always be poor, because he never was a provident man.'
'He's comin' tae see ye, mem,' said Archie, grimly, lighting his pipe.
Madame rose to her feet and walked to the window.
'He's done that before,' she said, complacently; 'the result was not satisfactory.'
'Continual dropping wears away a stone,' said Selina, who was now clearing away.
'But not iron,' replied Madame, placidly; 'I don't think his persistence will gain anything.'
Archie smiled grimly, and then went outside to smoke his pipe, while Madame sat down by the open window and looked out at the fast-fading landscape.
Her thoughts were not pleasant. She had hoped to cut herself off from all the bitterness and sorrow of her past life, but this husband of hers, like an unquiet spirit, came to trouble her and remind her of a time she would willingly have forgotten. She looked calm and quiet enough sitting there with her placid face and smooth brow; but this woman was like a slumbering volcano, and her passions were all the more dangerous from being kept in check.
A bat flew high up in the air across the clear glow of the sky, disappearing into the adjacent bush, and Madame, stretching out her hand, idly plucked a fresh, dewy rose off the tree which grew round the window.
'If I could only get rid of him,' she thought, toying with the flower; 'but it is impossible. I can't do that without money, and money I never will have till I find that lead. I must bribe him, I suppose. Oh, why can't he leave me alone now? Surely he has ruined my life sufficiently in the past to let me have a few years, if not of pleasure, at least of forgetfulness.' And with a petulant gesture she hurled the rose out of the window, where it struck Archie a soft and fragrant blow on the cheek.
'Yes,' said Madame to herself, as she pulled down the window, 'I must get rid of him, and if bribery won't do--there are other means.'
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Is there anyone nowadays who reads Cowper--that charming, domestic poet who wrote 'The Task', and invested even furniture with the glamour of poesy? Alas! to many people Cowper is merely a name, or is known only as the author of the delightfully quaint ballad of John Gilpin. Yet he was undoubtedly the Poet Laureate of domesticity, and every householder should possess a bust or picture of him--placed, not amid the frigid splendours of the drawing room, but occupying the place of honour in his own particular den, where everything is old-fashioned, cheery, and sanctified by long usage. No one wrote so pleasantly about the pleasures of a comfortable room as Cowper. And was he not right to do so? After all, every hearth is the altar of the family, whereon the sacred fire should be kept constantly burning, waxing and waning with the seasons, but never be permitted to die out altogether. Miss Sprotts, as before mentioned, was much in favour of a constant fire, because of the alleged dampness of the house, and Madame Midas did not by any means object, as she was a perfect salamander for heat. Hence, when the outward door was closed, the faded red curtains of the window drawn, and the newly replenished fire blazed brightly in the wide fireplace, the room was one which even Cowper--sybarite in home comforts as he was- -would have contemplated with delight.
Madame Midas was seated now at the small table in the centre of the room, poring over a bewildering array of figures, and the soft glow of the lamp touched her smooth hair and white dress with a subdued light.
Archie sat by the fire, half asleep, and there was a dead silence in the room, only broken by the rapid scratching of Madame's pen or the click of Selina's needles. At last Mrs Villiers, with a sigh of relief, laid down her pen, put all her papers together, and tied them neatly with a bit of string.
'I'm afraid I'll have to get a clerk, Archie,' she said, as she put the papers away, 'the office work is getting too much for me.'
''Deed, mem, and 'tis that same I was thinkin' o',' returned Mr McIntosh, sitting bolt upright in his chair, lest the imputation of having been asleep should be brought against him. 'It's ill wark seein' ye spoilin' your bonny eyes owre sic a muckle lot o' figures as ye hae there.'
'Someone must do it,' said Madame, resuming her seat at the table.
'Then why not get a body that can dae it?' retorted Archie; 'not but what ye canna figure yersel', mem, but really ye need a rest, and if I hear of onyone in toun wha we can trust I'll bring him here next week.'
'I don't see why you shouldn't,' said Madame, musingly; 'the mine is fairly under way now, and if things go on as they are doing, I must have someone to assist me.'
At this moment a knock came to the front door, which caused Selina to drop her work with a sudden start, and rise to her feet.
'Not you, Selina,' said Madame, in a quiet voice; 'let Archie go; it may be some tramp.'
''Deed no, mem,' replied Archie, obstinately, as he arose from his seat; ''tis verra likely a man fra the warks saying he wants to go. There's mair talk nor sense aboot them, I'm thinkin'--the yattering parrots.'
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