Chapter XXXIII
 

"Now explain." His words were a command, his tone peremptory.

Jean, who knew men, and read them without error, realised that this was not a moment to temporise.

"I will explain to you, François, but I do not like the way you speak," she said. "It is not you I wish to compromise, but Madame Meredith."

"In this letter I wrote for you I said I was going away. I confessed to you that I had forged a cheque for five million francs. That is a very serious document, mademoiselle, to be in the possession of anybody but myself." He looked at her straight in the eyes and she met his gaze unflinchingly.

"The thing will be made very clear to you to-morrow, François," she said softly, "and really there is no reason to worry. I wish to end this unhappy state of affairs."

"With me?" he asked quickly.

"No, with Madame Meredith," she answered. "I, too, am tired of waiting for marriage and I intend asking my father's permission for the wedding to take place next week. Indeed, François," she lowered her eyes modestly, "I have already written to the British Consul at Nice, asking him to arrange for the ceremony to be performed."

The sallow face of the chauffeur flushed a dull red.

"Do you mean that?" he said eagerly. "Jean, you are not deceiving me?"

She shook her head.

"No, François," she said in that low plaintive voice of hers, "I could not deceive you in a matter so important to myself."

He stood watching her, his breast heaving, his burning eyes devouring her, then:

"You will give me back that letter I wrote, Jean?" he said.

"I will give it to you to-morrow."

"To-night," he said, and took both her hands in his. "I am sure I am right. It is too dangerous a letter to be in existence, Jean, dangerous for you and for me--you will let me have it to-night?"

She hesitated.

"It is in my room," she said, an unnecessary statement, and, in the circumstances, a dangerous one, for his eyes dropped to the bag that hung at her wrist.

"It is there," he said. "Jean darling, do as I ask," he pleaded. "You know, every time I think of that letter I go cold. I was a madman when I wrote it."

"I have not got it here," she said steadily. She tried to draw back, but she was too late. He gripped her wrists and pulled the bag roughly from her hand.

"Forgive me, but I know I am right," he began, and then like a fury she flew at him, wrenched the bag from his hand, and by the very violence of her attack, flung him backward.

He stared at her, and the colour faded from his face leaving it a dead white.

"What is this you are trying to do?" he glowered at her.

"I will see you in the morning, François," she said and turned.

Before she could reach the head of the stairs his arm was round her and he had dragged her back.

"My friend," he said between his teeth, "there is something in this matter which is bad for me."

"Let me go," she breathed and struck at his face.

For a full minute they struggled, and then the door opened and Mr. Briggerland came in, and at the sight of his livid face, Mordon released his hold.

"You swine!" hissed the big man. His fist shot out and Mordon went down with a crash to the ground. For a moment he was stunned, and then with a snarl he turned over on his side and whipped a revolver from his hip pocket. Before he could fire, the girl had gripped the pistol and wrenched it from his hand.

"Get up," said Briggerland sternly. "Now explain to me, my friend, what you mean by this disgraceful attack upon mademoiselle."

The man rose and dusted himself mechanically and there was that in his face which boded no good to Mr. Briggerland.

Before he could speak Jean intervened.

"Father," she said quietly, "you have no right to strike François."

"François," spluttered Briggerland, his dark face purple with rage.

"François," she repeated calmly. "It is right that you should know that François and I will be married next week."

Mr. Briggerland's jaw dropped.

"What?" he almost shrieked.

She nodded.

"We are going to be married next week," she said, "and the little scene you witnessed has nothing whatever to do with you."

The effect of these words on Mordon was magical. The malignant frown which had distorted his face cleared away. He looked from Jean to Briggerland as though it were impossible to believe the evidence of his ears.

"François and I love one another," Jean went on in her even voice. "We have quarrelled to-night on a matter which has nothing to do with anybody save ourselves."

"You're--going--to--marry--him--next--week?" said Mr. Briggerland dully. "By God, you'll do nothing of the sort!"

She raised her hand.

"It is too late for you to interfere, father," she said quietly. "François and I shall go our way and face our own fate. I'm sorry you disapprove, because you have always been a very loving father to me."

That was the first hint Mr. Briggerland had received that there might be some other explanation for her words, and he became calmer.

"Very well," he said, "I can only tell you that I strongly disapprove of the action you have taken and that I shall do nothing whatever to further your reckless scheme. But I must insist upon your coming back to the house now. I cannot have my daughter talked about."

She nodded.

"I will see you to-morrow morning early, François," she said. "Perhaps you will drive me into Nice before breakfast. I have some purchases to make."

He bowed, and reached out his hand for the revolver which she had taken from him.

She looked at the ornate weapon, its silver-plated metal parts, the graceful ivory handle.

"I'm not going to trust you with this to-night," she said with her rare smile. "Good night, François."

He took her hand and kissed it.

"Good night, Jean," he said in a tremulous voice. For a moment their eyes met, and then she turned as though she dared not trust herself and followed her father down the stairs.

They were half-way to the house when she laid her hand on Briggerland's arm.

"Keep this," she said. It was François' revolver. "It is probably loaded and I thought I saw some silver initials inlaid in the ivory handle. If I know François Mordon, they are his."

"What do you want me to do with it?" he said as he slipped the weapon in his pocket.

She laughed.

"On your way to bed, come in to my room," she said. "I've quite a lot to tell you," and she sailed into the drawing-room to interrupt Mrs. Cole-Mortimer, who was teaching a weary Lydia the elements of bezique.

"Where have you been, Jean?" asked Lydia, putting down her cards.

"I have been arranging a novel experience for you, but I'm not so sure that it will be as interesting as it might--it all depends upon the state of your young heart," said Jean, pulling up a chair.

"My young heart is very healthy," laughed Lydia. "What is the interesting experience?"

"Are you in love?" challenged Jean, searching in a big chintz bag where she kept her handiwork for a piece of unfinished sewing. (Jean's domesticity was always a source of wonder to Lydia.)

"In love--good heavens, no."

"So much the better," nodded Jean, "that sounds as though the experience will be fascinating."

She waited until she had threaded the fine needle before she explained.

"If you really are not in love and you sit on the Lovers' Chair, the name of your future husband will come to you. If you're in love, of course, that complicates matters a little."

"But suppose I don't want to know the name of my future husband?"

"Then you're inhuman," said Jean.

"Where is this magical chair?"

"It is on the San Remo road beyond the frontier station. You've been there, haven't you, Margaret?"

"Once," said Mrs. Cole-Mortimer, who had not been east of Cap Martin, but whose rule it was never to admit that she had missed anything worth seeing.

"In a wild, eerie spot," Jean went on, "and miles from any human habitation."

"Are you going to take me?"

Jean shook her head.

"That would ruin the spell," she said solemnly. "No, my dear, if you want that thrill, and, seriously, it is worth while, because the scenery is the most beautiful of any along the coast, you must go alone."

Lydia nodded.

"I'll try it. Is it too far to walk?" she asked.

"Much too far," said Jean. "Mordon will drive you out. He knows the road very well and you ought not to take anybody but an experienced driver. I have a permis for the car to pass the frontier; you will probably meet father in San Remo--he is taking a motor-cycle trip, aren't you, daddy?"

Mr. Briggerland drew a long breath and nodded. He was beginning to understand.