The Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace
The man who had opened the door was a short, stoutly built person of middle age. He took the girl's arm gently, and without questioning she accompanied him to the car ahead, the man in the raincoat following. No word was spoken, and Lydia was too bewildered to ask questions until the car was on its way. Then the younger man chuckled.
"Clever, Rennett!" he said. "I tell you, those people are super-humanly brilliant!"
"I'm not a great admirer of villainy," said the other gruffly, and the younger man, who was sitting opposite the girl, laughed.
"You must take a detached interest, my dear chap. Personally, I admire them. I admit they gave me a fright when I realised that Miss Beale had not called the cab, but that it had been carefully planted for her, but still I can admire them."
"What does it mean?" asked the puzzled girl. "I'm so confused--where are we going now? To the office?"
"I fear you will not get to the office to-night," said the young man calmly, "and it is impossible to explain to you just why you were abducted."
"Abducted?" said the girl incredulously. "Do you mean to say that man----"
"He was carrying you into the country," said the other calmly. "He would probably have travelled all night and have left you stranded in some un-get-at-able place. I don't think he meant any harm--they never take unnecessary risks, and all they wanted was to spirit you away for the night. How they came to know that we had chosen you baffles me," he said. "Can you advance any theory, Rennett?"
"Chosen me?" repeated the startled girl. "Really, I feel I'm entitled to some explanation, and if you don't mind, I would like you to take me back to my office. I have a job to keep," she added grimly.
"Six pounds ten a week, and a few guineas extra for your illustrations," said the man in the raincoat. "Believe me, Miss Beale, you'll never pay off your debts on that salary, not if you live to be a hundred."
She could only gasp.
"You seem to know a great deal about my private affairs," she said, when she had recovered her breath.
"A great deal more than you can imagine."
She guessed he was smiling in the darkness, and his voice was so gentle and apologetic that she could not take offence.
"In the past twelve months you have had thirty-nine judgments recorded against you, and in the previous year, twenty-seven. You are living on exactly thirty shillings a week, and all the rest is going to your father's creditors."
"You're very impertinent!" she said hotly and, as she felt, foolishly.
"I'm very pertinent, really. By the way, my name is Glover--John Glover, of the firm of Rennett, Glover and Simpson. The gentleman at your side is Mr. Charles Rennett, my senior partner. We are a firm of solicitors, but how long we shall remain a firm," he added pointedly, "depends rather upon you."
"Upon me?" said the girl in genuine astonishment. "Well, I can't say that I have so much love for lawyers----"
"That I can well understand," murmured Mr. Glover.
"But I certainly do not wish to dissolve your partnership," she went on.
"It is rather more serious than that," said Mr. Rennett, who was sitting by her side. "The fact is, Miss Beale, we are acting in a perfectly illegal manner, and we are going to reveal to you the particulars of an act we contemplate, which, if you pass on the information to the police, will result in our professional ruin. So you see this adventure is infinitely more important to us than at present it is to you. And here we are!" he said, interrupting the girl's question.
The car turned into a narrow drive, and proceeded some distance through an avenue of trees before it pulled up at the pillared porch of a big house.
Rennett helped her to alight and ushered her through the door, which opened almost as they stopped, into a large panelled hall.
"This is the way, let me show you," said the younger man.
He opened a door and she found herself in a big drawing-room, exquisitely furnished and lit by two silver electroliers suspended from the carved roof.
To her relief an elderly woman rose to greet her.
"This is my wife, Miss Beale," said Rennett. "I need hardly explain that this is also my home."
"So you found the young lady," said the elderly lady, smiling her welcome, "and what does Miss Beale think of your proposition?"
The young man Glover came in at that moment, and divested of his long raincoat and hat, he proved to be of a type that the Universities turn out by the hundred. He was good-looking too, Lydia noticed with feminine inconsequence, and there was something in his eyes that inspired trust. He nodded with a smile to Mrs. Rennett, then turned to the girl.
"Now Miss Beale, I don't know whether I ought to explain or whether my learned and distinguished friend prefers to save me the trouble."
"Not me," said the elder man hastily. "My dear," he turned to his wife, "I think we'll leave Jack Glover to talk to this young lady."
"Doesn't she know?" asked Mrs. Rennett in surprise, and Lydia laughed, although she was feeling far from amused.
The possible loss of her employment, the disquieting adventure of the evening, and now this further mystery all combined to set her nerves on edge.
Glover waited until the door closed on his partner and his wife and seemed inclined to wait a little longer, for he stood with his back to the fire, biting his lips and looking down thoughtfully at the carpet.
"I don't just know how to begin, Miss Beale," he said. "And having seen you, my conscience is beginning to work overtime. But I might as well start at the beginning. I suppose you have heard of the Bulford murder?"
The girl stared at him.
"The Bulford murder?" she said incredulously, and he nodded.
"Why, of course, everybody has heard of that."
"Then happily it is unnecessary to explain all the circumstances," said Jack Glover, with a little grimace of distaste.
"I only know," interrupted the girl, "that Mr. Bulford was killed by a Mr. Meredith, who was jealous of him, and that Mr. Meredith, when he went into the witness-box, behaved disgracefully to his fiancée."
"Exactly," nodded Glover with a twinkle in his eye. "In other words, he repudiated the suggestion that he was jealous, swore that he had already told Miss Briggerland that he could not marry her, and he did not even know that Bulford was paying attention to the lady."
"He did that to save his life," said Lydia quietly. "Miss Briggerland swore in the witness-box that no such interview had occurred."
"What you do not know, Miss Beale," he said gravely, "is that Jean Briggerland was Meredith's cousin, and unless certain things happen, she will inherit the greater part of six hundred thousand pounds from Meredith's estate. Meredith, I might explain, is one of my best friends, and the fact that he is now serving out a life sentence does not make him any less a friend. I am as sure, as I am sure of your sitting there, that he no more killed Bulford than I did. I believe the whole thing was a plot to secure his death or imprisonment. My partner thinks the same. The truth is that Meredith was engaged to this girl; he discovered certain things about her and her father which are not greatly to their credit. He was never really in love with her, beautiful as she is, and he was trapped into the proposal. When he found out how things were shaping and heard some of the queer stories which were told about Briggerland and his daughter, he broke off the engagement and went that night to tell her so."
The girl had listened in some bewilderment to this recital.
"I don't exactly see what all this is to do with me," she said, and again Jack Glover nodded.
"I can quite understand," he said, "but I will tell you yet another part of the story which is not public property. Meredith's father was an eccentric man who believed in early marriages, and it was a condition of his will that if Meredith was not married by his thirtieth birthday, the money should go to his sister, her heirs and successors. His sister was Mrs. Briggerland, who is now dead. Her heirs are her husband and Jean Briggerland."
There was a silence. The girl stared thoughtfully into the fire.
"How old is Mr. Meredith?"
"He is thirty next Monday," said Glover quietly, "and it is necessary that he should be married before next Monday."
"In prison?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"If such things are allowed that could have been arranged, but for some reason the Home Secretary refuses to exercise his discretion in this matter, and has resolutely refused to allow such a marriage to take place. He objects on the ground of public policy, and I dare say from his point of view he is right. Meredith has a twenty-years sentence to serve."
"Then how----" began Lydia.
"Let me tell this story more or less understandably," said Glover with that little smile of his. "Believe me, Miss Beale, I'm not so keen upon the scheme as I was. If by chance," he spoke deliberately, "we could get James Meredith into this house to-morrow morning, would you marry him?"
"Me?" she gasped. "Marry a man I've not seen--a murderer?"
"Not a murderer," he said gently.
"But it is preposterous, impossible!" she protested. "Why me?"
He was silent for a moment.
"When this scheme was mooted we looked round for some one to whom such a marriage would be of advantage," he said, speaking slowly. "It was Rennett's idea that we should search the County Court records of London to discover if there was a girl who was in urgent need of money. There is no surer way of unearthing financial skeletons than by searching County Court records. We found four, only one of whom was eligible and that was you. Don't interrupt me for a moment, please," he said, raising his hand warningly as she was about to speak. "We have made thorough inquiries about you, too thorough in fact, because the Briggerlands have smelt a rat, and have been on our trail for a week. We know that you are not engaged to be married, we know that you have a fairly heavy burden of debts, and we know, too, that you are unencumbered by relations or friends. What we offer you, Miss Beale, and believe me I feel rather a cad in being the medium through which the offer is made, is five thousand pounds a year for the rest of your life, a sum of twenty thousand pounds down, and the assurance that you will not be troubled by your husband from the moment you are married."
Lydia listened like one in a dream. It did not seem real. She would wake up presently and find Mrs. Morgan with a cup of tea in her hand and a plate of her indigestible cakes. Such things did not happen, she told herself, and yet here was a young man, standing with his back to the fire, explaining in the most commonplace conversational tone, an offer which belonged strictly to the realm of romance, and not too convincing romance at that.
"You've rather taken my breath away," she said after a while. "All this wants thinking about, and if Mr. Meredith is in prison----"
"Mr. Meredith is not in prison," said Glover quietly. "He was released two days ago to go to a nursing home for a slight operation. He escaped from the nursing home last night and at this particular moment is in this house."
She could only stare at him open-mouthed, and he went on.
"The Briggerlands know he has escaped; they probably thought he was here, because we have had a police visitation this afternoon, and the interior of the house and grounds have been searched. They know, of course, that Mr. Rennett and I were his legal advisers, and we expected them to come. How he escaped their observation is neither here nor there. Now, Miss Beale, what do you say?"
"I don't know what to say," she said, shaking her head helplessly. "I know I'm dreaming, and if I had the moral courage to pinch myself hard, I should wake up. Somehow I don't want to wake, it is so fascinatingly impossible."
"Can I see Mr. Meredith?"
"Not till to-morrow. I might say that we've made every arrangement for your wedding, the licence has been secured and at eight o'clock to-morrow morning--marriages before eight or after three are not legal in this country, by the way--a clergyman will attend and the ceremony will be performed."
There was a long silence.
Lydia sat on the edge of her chair, her elbows on her knees, her face in her hands.
Glover looked down at her seriously, pityingly, cursing himself that he was the exponent of his own grotesque scheme. Presently she looked up.
"I think I will," she said a little wearily. "And you were wrong about the number of judgment summonses, there were seventy-five in two years--and I'm so tired of lawyers."
"Thank you," said Jack Glover politely.