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The Angel of Terror
Edgar Wallace (1922) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Her maid woke Jean Briggerland at eight o'clock the next morning.
"Oh, miss," she said, as she drew up the table for the chocolate, "have you heard about Mrs. Meredith?"
Jean blinked open her eyes, slipped into her dressing jacket and sat up with a yawn.
"Have I heard about Mrs. Meredith? Many times," she said.
"But what somebody did last night, miss?"
Jean was wide awake now.
"What has happened to Mrs. Meredith?" she asked.
"Why, miss, somebody played a practical joke on her. Her bed's sopping."
"Sopping?" frowned the girl.
"Yes, miss," the woman nodded. "They must have poured buckets of water over it, and used up all Mrs. Cole-Mortimer's peroxide, what she uses for keeping her hands nice."
Jean swung out of her bed and sat looking down at her tiny white feet.
"Where did Mrs. Meredith sleep? Why didn't she wake us up?"
"She slept in the dressing-room, miss. I don't suppose the young lady liked making a fuss."
"Who did it?"
"I don't know who did it. It's a silly kind of practical joke, and I know none of the maids would have dared, not the French ones."
Jean put her feet into her slippers, exchanged her jacket for a gown, and went on a tour of inspection.
Lydia was dressing in her room, and the sound of her fresh, young voice, as she carolled out of sheer love of life, came to the girl before she turned into the room.
One glance at the bed was sufficient. It was still wet, and the empty peroxide bottle told its own story.
Jean glanced at it thoughtfully as she crossed into the dressing-room.
"Whatever happened last night, Lydia?"
Lydia turned at the voice.
"Oh, the bed you mean," she made a little face. "Heaven knows. It occurred to me this morning that some person, out of mistaken kindness, had started to disinfect the room--it was only this morning that I recalled the little boy who was ill--and had overdone it."
"They've certainly overdone it," said Jean grimly. "I wonder what poor Mrs. Cole-Mortimer will say. You haven't the slightest idea----"
"Not the slightest idea," said Lydia, answering the unspoken question.
"I'll see Mrs. Cole-Mortimer and get her to change your bed--there's another room you could have," suggested Jean.
She went back to her own apartment, bathed and dressed leisurely.
She found her father in the garden reading the Nicoise, under the shade of a bush, for the sun was not warm, but at that hour, blinding.
"I've changed my plans," she said without preliminary.
He looked up over his glasses.
"I didn't know you had any," he said with heavy humour.
"I intended going back to London and taking you with me," she said unexpectedly.
"Back to London?" he said incredulously. "I thought you were staying on for a month."
"I probably shall now," she said, pulling up a basket-chair and sitting by his side. "Give me a cigarette."
"You're smoking a lot lately," he said as he handed his case to her.
"I know I am."
"Have your nerves gone wrong?"
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and her lips curled.
"It wouldn't be remarkable if I inherited a little of your yellow streak," she said coolly, and he growled something under his breath. "No, my nerves are all right, but a cigarette helps me to think."
"A yellow streak, have I?" Mr. Briggerland was annoyed. "And I've been out since five o'clock this morning----" he stopped.
"Doing--what?" she asked curiously.
"Never mind," he said with a lofty gesture.
Thus they sat, busy with their own thoughts, for a quarter of an hour.
"Yes," she said without turning her head.
"Don't you think we'd better give this up and get back to London? Lord Stoker is pretty keen on you."
"I'm not pretty keen on him," she said decidedly. "He has his regimental pay and £500 a year, two estates, mortgaged, no brains and a title--what is the use of his title to me? As much use as a coat of paint! Beside which, I am essentially democratic."
He chuckled, and there was another silence.
"Do you think the lawyer is keen on the girl?"
Mr. Briggerland nodded.
"I imagine he is," said Jean thoughtfully. "I like Jack--he's clever. He has all the moral qualities which one admires so much in the abstract. I could love Jack myself."
"Could he love you?" bantered her father.
"He couldn't," she said shortly. "Jack would be a happy man if he saw me stand in Jim Meredith's place in the Old Bailey. No, I have no illusion about Jack's affections."
"He's after Lydia's money I suppose," said Mr. Briggerland, stroking his bald head.
"Don't be a fool," was the calm reply. "That kind of man doesn't worry about a girl's money. I wish Lydia was dead," she added without malice. "It would make things so easy and smooth."
Her father swallowed something.
"You shock me sometimes, Jean," he said, a statement which amused her.
"You're such a half-and-half man," she said with a note of contempt in her voice. "You were quite willing to benefit by Jim Meredith's death; you killed him as cold-bloodedly as you killed poor little Bulford, and yet you must whine and snivel whenever your deeds are put into plain language. What does it matter if Lydia dies now or in fifty years time?" she asked. "It would be different if she were immortal. You people attach so much importance to human life--the ancients, and the Japanese amongst the modern, are the only people who have the matter in true perspective. It is no more cruel to kill a human being than it is to cut the throat of a pig to provide you with bacon. There's hardly a dish at your table which doesn't represent wilful murder, and yet you never think of it, but because the man animal can talk and dresses himself or herself in queer animal and vegetable fabrics, and decorates the body with bits of metal and pieces of glittering quartz, you give its life a value which you deny to the cattle within your gates! Killing is a matter of expediency. Permissible if you call it war, terrible if you call it murder. To me it is just killing. If you are caught in the act of killing they kill you, and people say it is right to do so. The sacredness of human life is a slogan invented by cowards who fear death--as you do."
"Don't you, Jean?" he asked in a hushed voice.
"I fear life without money," she said quietly. "I fear long days of work for a callous, leering employer, and strap-hanging in a crowded tube on my way home to one miserable room and the cold mutton of yesterday. I fear getting up and making my own bed and washing my own handkerchiefs and blouses, and renovating last year's hats to make them look like this year's. I fear a poor husband and a procession of children, and doing the housework with an incompetent maid, or maybe without any at all. Those are the things I fear, Mr. Briggerland."
She dusted the ash from her dress and got up.
"I haven't forgotten the life we lived at Ealing," she said significantly.
She looked across the bay to Monte Carlo glittering in the morning sunlight, to the green-capped head of Cap-d'Ail, to Beaulieu, a jewel set in greystone and shook her head.
"'It is written'," she quoted sombrely and left him in the midst of the question he was asking. She strolled back to the house and joined Lydia who was looking radiantly beautiful in a new dress of silver grey charmeuse.