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The Angel of Terror
Edgar Wallace (1922) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Lydia Meredith only remembered swooning twice in her life, and both these occasions had happened within a few weeks.
She never felt quite so unprepared to carry on as she did when, with an effort she threw herself into the water at Marcus Stepney's side and swam slowly toward the shore.
She dare not let her mind dwell upon the narrowness of her escape. Whoever had fired that shot had done so deliberately, and with the intention of killing her. She had felt the wind of the bullet in her face.
"What do you suppose it was?" asked Marcus Stepney as he assisted her up the beach. "Do you think it was soldiers practising?"
She shook her head.
"Oh," said Mr. Stepney thoughtfully, and then: "If you don't mind, I'll run up and see what has happened."
He wrapped himself in the dressing gown he had brought with him, and followed Jean's trail, coming up with her as Mr. Briggerland opened his eyes and stared round.
"Help me to hold him, Marcus," said Jean.
"Wait a moment," said Mr. Stepney, feeling in his pocket and producing a silk handkerchief, "bandage him with that."
She shook her head.
"He's lost all the blood he's going to lose," she said quietly, "and I don't think there's a fracture. I felt the skull very carefully with my finger."
Mr. Stepney shivered.
"Hullo," said Briggerland drowsily, "Gee, he gave me a whack!"
"Who did it?" asked the girl.
Mr. Briggerland shook his head and winced with the pain of it.
"I don't know," he moaned. "Help me up. Stepney."
With the man's assistance he rose unsteadily to his feet.
"What happened?" asked Stepney.
"Don't ask him any questions now," said the girl sharply. "Help him back to the house."
A doctor was summoned and stitched the wound. He gave an encouraging report, and was not too inquisitive as to how the injury had occurred. Foreign visitors get extraordinary things in the regions of Monte Carlo, and medical men lose nothing by their discretion.
It was not until that afternoon, propped up with pillows in a chair, the centre of a sympathetic audience, that Mr. Briggerland told his story.
"I had a feeling that something was wrong," he said, "and I went up to investigate. I heard a shot fired, almost within a few yards of me, and dashing through the bushes, I saw the fellow taking aim for the second time, and seized him. You remember the second shot went high."
"What sort of a man was he?" asked Stepney.
"He was an Italian, I should think," answered Mr. Briggerland. "At any rate, he caught me an awful whack with the back of his rifle, and I knew no more until Jean found me."
"Do you think he was firing at me?" asked Lydia in horror.
"I am certain of it," said Briggerland. "I realised it the moment I saw the fellow."
"How am I to thank you?" said the girl impulsively. "Really, it was wonderful of you to tackle an armed man with your bare hands."
Mr. Briggerland closed his eyes and sighed.
"It was nothing," he said modestly.
Before dinner he and his daughter were left alone for the first time since the accident.
"What happened?" she asked.
"It was going to be a little surprise for you," he said. "A little scheme of my own, my dear; you're always calling me a funk, and I wanted to prove----"
"What happened?" she asked tersely.
"Well, I went out yesterday morning and fixed it all. I bought the rifle, an old English rifle, at Amiens from a peasant. I thought it might come in handy, especially as the man threw in a packet of ammunition. Yesterday morning, lying awake before daybreak, I thought it out. I went up to the hill--the land belongs to an empty house, by the way--and I located the spot, put the rifle where I could find it easily, and fixed a pair of glass goggles on to one of the bushes, where the sun would catch it. The whole scheme was not without its merit as a piece of strategy, my dear," he said complacently.
"And then----?" she said.
"I thought we'd go bathing yesterday, but we didn't, but to-day--it was a long time before anybody spotted the glasses, but once I had the excuse for going ashore and investigating, the rest was easy."
"So that was why you asked me to keep her on the raft, and make her stand up?"
"Well----?" she demanded.
"I went up to the spot, got the rifle and took aim. I've always been a pretty good shot----"
"You didn't advertise it to-day," she said sardonically. "Then I suppose somebody hit you on the head?"
He nodded and made a grimace, but any movement of his injured cranium was excessively painful.
"Who was it?" she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Don't ask fool questions," he said petulantly. "I know nothing. I didn't even feel the blow. I just remember taking aim, and then everything went dark."
"And how would you have explained it all, supposing you had succeeded?"
"That was easy," he said. "I should have said that I went in search of the man we had seen, I heard a shot and rushed forward and found nothing but the rifle."
She was silent, pinching her lips absently.
"And you took the risk of some peasant or visitor seeing you--took the risk of bringing the police to the spot and turning what might have easily been a case of accidental death into an obvious case of wilful murder. I think you called yourself a strategist," she asked politely.
"I did my best," he growled.
"Well, don't do it again, father," she said. "Your foolhardiness appals me, and heaven knows, I never expected that I should be in a position to call you foolhardy."
And with this she left him to bask in the hero-worship which the approaching Mrs. Cole-Mortimer would lavish upon him.
The "accident" kept them at home that night, and Lydia was not sorry. A settee is not a very comfortable sleeping place, and she was ready for a real bed that night. Mr. Stepney found her yawning surreptitiously, and went home early in disgust.
The night was warmer than the morning had been. The Föhn wind was blowing and she found her room with its radiator a little oppressive. She opened the long French windows, and stepped out on to the balcony. The last quarter of the moon was high in the sky, and though the light was faint, it gave shadows to trees and an eerie illumination to the lawn.
She leant her arms on the rail and looked across the sea to the lights of Monte Carlo glistening in the purple night. Her eyes wandered idly to the grounds and she started. She could have sworn she had seen a figure moving in the shadow of the tree, nor was she mistaken.
Presently it left the tree belt, and stepped cautiously across the lawn, halting now and again to look around. She thought at first that it was Marcus Stepney who had returned, but something about the walk of the man seemed familiar. Presently he stopped directly under the balcony and looked up and she uttered an exclamation, as the faint light revealed the iron-grey hair and the grisly eyebrows of the intruder.
"All right, miss," he said in a hoarse whisper, "it's only old Jaggs."
"What are you doing?" she answered in the same tone.
"Just lookin' round," he said, "just lookin' round," and limped again into the darkness.