Chapter XXXIX
 

The morning for Mr. Stepney had been doubly disappointing; again and again he drew up an empty line, and at last he flung the tackle into the well of the launch.

"Even the damn fish won't bite," he said, and the humour of his remark cheered him. He was ten miles from the shore, and the blue coast was a dim, ragged line on the horizon. He pulled out a big luncheon basket from the cabin and eyed it with disfavour. It had cost him two hundred francs. He opened the basket, and at the sight of its contents, was inclined to reconsider his earlier view that he had wasted his money, the more so since the maître d'hôtel had thoughtfully included two quart bottles of champagne.

Mr. Marcus Stepney made a hearty meal, and by the time he had dropped an empty bottle into the sea, he was inclined to take a more cheerful view of life. He threw over the debris of the lunch, pushed the basket under one of the seats of the cabin, pulled up his anchor and started the engines running.

The sky was a brighter blue and the sea held a finer sparkle, and he was inclined to take a view of even Jean Briggerland, more generous than any he had held.

"Little devil," he smiled reminiscently, as he murmured the words.

He opened the second bottle of champagne in her honour--Mr. Marcus Stepney was usually an abstemious man--and drank solemnly, if not soberly, her health and happiness. As the sun grew warmer he began to feel an unaccountable sleepiness. He was sober enough to know that to fall asleep in the middle of the ocean was to ask for trouble, and he set the bow of the Jungle Queen for the nearest beach, hoping to find a landing place.

He found something better as he skirted the shore. The sea and the weather had scooped out a big hollow under a high cliff, a hollow just big enough to take the Jungle Queen and deep and still enough to ensure her a safe anchorage. A rock barrier interposed between the breakers and this deep pool which the waves had hollowed in the stony floor of the ocean. As he dropped his anchor he disturbed a school of fish, and his angling instincts re-awoke. He let down his line over the side, seated himself comfortable in one of the two big basket chairs, and was dozing comfortably....

It was the sound of a shot that woke him. It was followed by another, and a third. Almost immediately something dropped from the cliff, and fell with a mighty splash into the water.

Marcus was wide awake now, and almost sobered. He peered down into the clear depths, and saw a figure of a woman turning over and over. Then as it floated upwards it came on its back, and he saw the face. Without a moment's hesitation he dived into the water.

He would have been wiser if he had waited until she floated to the surface, for now he found a difficulty in regaining the boat. After a great deal of trouble, he managed to reach into the launch and pull out a rope, which he fastened round the girl's waist and drew tight to a small stanchion. Then he climbed into the boat himself, and pulled her after him.

He thought at first she was dead, but listening intently he heard the beating of her heart, and searched the luncheon basket for a small flask of liqueurs, which Alphonse, the head waiter, had packed. He put the bottle to her lips and poured a small quantity into her mouth. She choked convulsively, and presently opened her eyes.

"You're amongst friends," said Marcus unnecessarily.

She sat up and covered her face with her hands. It all came back to her in a flash, and the horror of it froze her blood.

"What has happened to you?" asked Marcus.

"I don't know exactly," she said faintly. And then: "Oh, it was dreadful, dreadful!"

Marcus Stepney offered her the flask of liqueurs, and when she shook her head, he helped himself liberally.

Lydia was conscious of a pain in her left shoulder. The sleeve was torn, and across the thick of the arm there was an ugly raw weal.

"It looks like a bullet mark to me," said Marcus Stepney, suddenly grave. "I heard a shot. Did somebody shoot at you?"

She nodded.

"Who?"

She tried to frame the word, but no sound came, and then she burst into a fit of weeping.

"Not Jean?" he asked hoarsely.

She shook her head.

"Briggerland?"

She nodded.

"Briggerland!" Mr. Stepney whistled, and as he whistled he shivered. "Let's get out of here," he said. "We shall catch our death of cold. The sun will warm us up."

He started the engines going, and safely navigated the narrow passage to the open sea. He had to get a long way out before he could catch a glimpse of the road, then he saw the car, and a cycling policeman dismounting and bending over something. He put away his telescope and turned to the girl.

"This is bad, Mrs. Meredith," he said. "Thank God I wasn't in it."

"Where are you taking me?" she asked.

"I'm taking you out to sea," said Marcus with a little smile. "Don't get scared, Mrs. Meredith. I want to hear that story of yours, and if it is anything like what I fear, then it would be better for you that Briggerland thinks you are dead."

She told the story as far as she knew it and he listened, not interrupting, until she had finished.

"Mordon dead, eh? That's bad. But how on earth are they going to explain it? I suppose," he said with a smile, "you didn't write a letter saying that you were going to run away with the chauffeur?"

She sat up at this.

"I did write a letter," she said slowly. "It wasn't a real letter, it was in a story which Jean was dictating."

She closed her eyes.

"How awful," she said. "I can't believe it even now."

"Tell me about the story," said the man quickly.

"It was a story she was writing for a London magazine, and her wrist hurt, and I wrote it down as she dictated. Only about three pages, but one of the pages was a letter supposed to have been written by the heroine saying that she was going away, as she loved somebody who was beneath her socially."

"Good God!" said Marcus, genuinely shocked. "Did Jean do that?"

He seemed absolutely crushed by the realisation of Jean Briggerland's deed, and he did not speak again for a long time.

"I'm glad I know," he said at last.

"Do you really think that all this time she has been trying to kill me?"

He nodded.

"She has used everybody, even me," he said bitterly. "I don't want you to think badly of me, Mrs. Meredith, but I'm going to tell you the truth. I'd provisioned this little yacht to-day for a twelve hundred mile trip, and you were to be my companion."

"I?" she said incredulously.

"It was Jean's idea, really, though I think she must have altered her view, or thought I had forgotten all she suggested. I intended taking you out to sea and keeping you out there until you agreed----" he shook his head. "I don't think I could have done it really," he said, speaking half to himself. "I'm not really built for a conspirator. None of that rough stuff ever appealed to me. Well, I didn't try, anyway."

"No, Mr. Stepney," she said quietly, "and I don't think, if you had, you would have succeeded."

He was in his frankest mood, and startled her later when he told her of his profession, without attempting to excuse or minimise the method by which he earned his livelihood.

"I was in a pretty bad way, and I thought there was easy money coming, and that rather tempted me," he said. "I know you will think I am a despicable cad, but you can't think too badly of me, really."

He surveyed the shore. Ahead of them the green tongue of Cap Martin jutted out into the sea.

"I think I'll take you to Nice," he said. "We'll attract less attention there, and probably I'll be able to get into touch with your old Mr. Jaggs. You've no idea where I can find him? At any rate, I can go to the Villa Casa and discover what sort of a yarn is being told."

"And probably I can get my clothes dry," she said with a little grimace. "I wonder if you know how uncomfortable I am?"

"Pretty well," he said calmly. "Every time I move a new stream of water runs down my back."

It was half-past three in the afternoon when they reached Nice, and Marcus saw the girl safely to an hotel, changed himself and brought the yacht back to Monaco, where Briggerland had seen him.

For two hours Marcus Stepney wrestled with his love for a girl who was plainly a murderess, and in the end love won. When darkness fell he provisioned the Jungle Queen, loaded her with petrol, and heading her out to sea made the swimming cove of Cap Martin. It was to the boat that Jean flew.

"What about my father?" she asked as she stepped aboard.

"I think they've caught him," said Marcus.

"He'll hate prison," said the girl complacently. "Hurry, Marcus, I'd hate it, too!"