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The Angel of Terror
Edgar Wallace (1922) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Miss Jean Briggerland reached her home in Berkeley Street soon after nine o'clock. She did not ring, but let herself in with a key and went straight to the dining-room, where her father sat eating his breakfast, with a newspaper propped up before him.
He was the dark-skinned man whom Lydia had seen at the theatre, and he looked up over his gold-rimmed spectacles as the girl came in.
"You have been out very early," he said.
She did not reply, but slowly divesting herself of her sable coat she threw it on to a chair, took off the toque that graced her shapely head, and flung it after the coat. Then she drew out a chair, and sat down at the table, her chin on her palms, her blue eyes fixed upon her parent.
Nature had so favoured her that her face needed no artificial embellishment--the skin was clear and fine of texture, and the cold morning had brought only a faint pink to the beautiful face.
"Well, my dear," Mr. Briggerland looked up and beamed through his glasses, "so poor Meredith has committed suicide?"
She did not speak, keeping her eyes fixed on him.
"Very sad, very sad," Mr. Briggerland shook his head.
"How did it happen?" she asked quietly.
Mr. Briggerland shrugged his shoulders.
"I suppose at the sight of you he bolted back to his hiding place where--er--had been located by--er--interested persons during the night, then seeing me by the shed--he committed the rash and fatal act. Somehow I thought he would run back to his dug-out."
"And you were prepared for him?" she said.
"A clear case of suicide, my dear," he said.
"Shot through the left temple, and the pistol was found in his right hand," said the girl.
Mr. Briggerland started.
"Damn it," he said. "Who noticed that?"
"That good-looking young lawyer, Glover."
"Did the police notice?"
"I suppose they did when Glover called their attention to the fact," said the girl.
Mr. Briggerland took off his glasses and wiped them.
"It was done in such a hurry--I had to get back through the garden gate to join the police. When I got there, I found they'd been attracted by the shot and had entered the house. Still, nobody would know I was in the garden, and anyway my association with the capture of an escaped convict would not get into the newspapers."
"But a case of suicide would," said the girl. "Though I don't suppose the police will give away the person who informed them that James Meredith would be at Dulwich Grange."
Mr. Briggerland sat back in his chair, his thick lips pursed, and he was not a beautiful sight.
"One can't remember everything," he grumbled.
He rose from his chair, went to the door, and locked it. Then he crossed to a bureau, pulled open a drawer and took out a small revolver. He threw out the cylinder, glanced along the barrel and the chambers to make sure it was not loaded, then clicked it back in position, and standing before a glass, he endeavoured, the pistol in his right hand, to bring the muzzle to bear on his left temple. He found this impossible, and signified his annoyance with a grunt. Then he tried the pistol with his thumb on the trigger and his hand clasping the back of the butt. Here he was more successful.
"That's it," he said with satisfaction. "It could have been done that way."
She did not shudder at the dreadful sight, but watched him with the keenest interest, her chin still in the palm of her hand. He might have been explaining a new way of serving a tennis ball, for all the emotion he evoked.
Mr. Briggerland came back to the table, toyed with a piece of toast and buttered it leisurely.
"Everybody is going to Cannes this year," he said, "but I think I shall stick to Monte Carlo. There is a quiet about Monte Carlo which is very restful, especially if one can get a villa on the hill away from the railway. I told Morden yesterday to take the new car across and meet us at Boulogne. He says that the new body is exquisite. There is a micraphonic attachment for telephoning to the driver, the electrical heating apparatus is splendid and----"
"Meredith was married."
If she had thrown a bomb at him she could not have produced a more tremendous sensation. He gaped at her, and pushed himself back from the table.
"Married?" His voice was a squeak.
"It's a lie," he roared. All his suavity dropped away from him, his face was distorted and puckered with anger and grew a shade darker. "Married, you lying little beast! He couldn't have been married! It was only a few minutes after eight, and the parson didn't come till nine. I'll break your neck if you try to scare me! I've told you about that before...."
He raved on, and she listened unmoved.
"He was married at eight o'clock by a man they brought down from Oxford, and who stayed the night in the house," she repeated with great calmness. "There's no sense in lashing yourself into a rage. I've seen the bride, and spoken to the clergyman."
From the bullying, raging madman, he became a whimpering, pitiable thing. His chin trembled, the big hands he laid on the tablecloth shook with a fever.
"What are we going to do?" he wailed. "My God, Jean, what are we going to do?"
She rose and went to the sideboard, poured out a stiff dose of brandy from a decanter and brought it across to him without a word. She was used to these tantrums, and to their inevitable ending. She was neither hurt, surprised, nor disgusted. This pale, ethereal being was the dominant partner of the combination. Nerves she did not possess, fears she did not know. She had acquired the precise sense of a great surgeon in whom pity was a detached emotion, and one which never intruded itself into the operating chamber. She was no more phenomenal than they, save that she did not feel bound by the conventions and laws which govern them as members of an ordered society. It requires no greater nerve to slay than to cure. She had had that matter out with herself, and had settled it to her own satisfaction.
"You will have to put off your trip to Monte Carlo," she said, as he drank the brandy greedily.
"We've lost everything now," he stuttered, "everything."
"This girl has no relations," said the daughter steadily. "Her heirs-at-law are ourselves."
He put down the glass, and looked at her, and became almost immediately his old self.
"My dear," he said admiringly, "you are really wonderful. Of course, it was childish of me. Now what do you suggest?"
"Unlock that door," she said in a low voice, "I want to call the maid."
As he walked to the door, she pressed the footbell, and soon after the faded woman who attended her came into the room.
"Hart," she said, "I want you to find my emerald ring, the small one, the little pearl necklet, and the diamond scarf pin. Pack them carefully in a box with cotton wool."
"Yes, madam," said the woman, and went out.
"Now what are you going to do, Jean?" asked her father.
"I am returning them to Mrs. Meredith," said the girl coolly. "They were presents given to me by her husband, and I feel after this tragic ending of my dream that I can no longer bear the sight of them."
"He didn't give you those things, he gave you the chain. Besides, you are throwing away good money?"
"I know he never gave them to me, and I am not throwing away good money," she said patiently. "Mrs. Meredith will return them, and she will give me an opportunity of throwing a little light upon James Meredith, an opportunity which I very much desire."
Later she went up to her pretty little sitting-room on the first floor, and wrote a letter.
"Dear Mrs. Meredith.--I am sending you the few trinkets which James gave to me in happier days. They are all that I have of his, and you, as a woman, will realise that whilst the possession of them brings me many unhappy memories, yet they have been a certain comfort to me. I wish I could dispose of memory as easily as I send these to you (for I feel they are really your property) but more do I wish that I could recall and obliterate the occasion which has made Mr. Glover so bitter an enemy of mine.
"Thinking over the past, I see that I was at fault, but I know that you will sympathise with me when the truth is revealed to you. A young girl, unused to the ways of men, perhaps I attached too much importance to Mr. Glover's attentions, and resented them too crudely. In those days I thought it was unpardonable that a man who professed to be poor James's best friend, should make love to his fiancée, though I suppose that such things happen, and are endured by the modern girl. A man does not readily forgive a woman for making him feel a fool--it is the one unpardonable offence that a girl can commit. Therefore, I do not resent his enmity as much as you might think. Believe me, I feel for you very much in these trying days. Let me say again that I hope your future will be bright."
She blotted the letter, put it in an envelope, and addressed it, and taking down a book from one of the well-stocked shelves, drew her chair to the fire, and began reading.
Mr. Briggerland came in an hour after, looked over her shoulder at the title, and made a sound of disapproval.
"I can't understand your liking for that kind of book," he said.
The book was one of the two volumes of "Chronicles of Crime," and she looked up with a smile.
"Can't you? It's very easily explained. It is the most encouraging work in my collection. Sit down for a minute."
"A record of vulgar criminals," he growled. "Their infernal last dying speeches, their processions to Tyburn--phaugh!"
She smiled again, and looked down at the book. The wide margins were covered with pencilled notes in her writing.
"They're a splendid mental exercise," she said. "In every case I have written down how the criminal might have escaped arrest, but they were all so vulgar, and so stupid. Really the police of the time deserve no credit for catching them. It is the same with modern criminals...."
She went to the shelf, and took down two large scrap-books, carried them across to the fire, and opened one on her knees.
"Vulgar and stupid, every one of them," she repeated, as she turned the leaves rapidly.
"The clever ones get caught at times," said Briggerland gloomily.
"Never," she said, and closed the book with a snap. "In England, in France, in America, and in almost every civilised country, there are murderers walking about to-day, respected by their fellow citizens. Murderers, of whose crimes the police are ignorant. Look at these." She opened the book again. "Here is the case of Rell, who poisons a troublesome creditor with weed-killer. Everybody in the town knew he bought the weed-killer; everybody knew that he was in debt to this man. What chance had he of escaping? Here's Jewelville--he kills his wife, buries her in the cellar, and then calls attention to himself by running away. Here's Morden, who kills his sister-in-law for the sake of her insurance money, and who also buys the poison in broad daylight, and is found with a bottle in his pocket. Such people deserve hanging."
"I wish to heaven you wouldn't talk about hanging," said Briggerland tremulously, "you're inhuman, Jean, by God--"
"I'm an angel," she smiled, "and I have press cuttings to prove it! The Daily Recorder had half a column on my appearance in the box at Jim's trial."
He looked over toward the writing-table, saw the letter, and picked it up.
"So you've written to the lady. Are you sending her the jewels?"
He looked at her quickly.
"You haven't been up to any funny business with them, have you?" he asked suspiciously, and she smiled.
"My dear parent," drawled Jean Briggerland, "after my lecture on the stupidity of the average criminal, do you imagine I should do anything so gauche?"