Chapter IV
 

All night long she had sat in the little bedroom to which Mrs. Rennett had led her, thinking and thinking and thinking. She could not sleep, although she had tried hard, and most of the night she spent pacing up and down from window to door turning over the amazing situation in which she found herself. She had never thought of marriage seriously, and really a marriage such as this presented no terrors and might, had the prelude been a little less exciting, been accepted by her with relief. The prospect of being a wife in name only, even the thought that her husband would be, for the next twenty years, behind prison walls, neither distressed nor horrified her. Somehow she accepted Glover's statement that Meredith was innocent, without reservation.

She wondered what Mrs. Morgan would say and what explanation she would give at the office. She was not particularly in love with her work, and it would be no wrench for her to drop it and give herself up to the serious study of art. Five thousand pounds a year! She could live in Italy, study under the best masters, have a car of her own--the possibilities seemed illimitable--and the disadvantages?

She shrugged her shoulders as she answered the question for the twentieth time. What disadvantages were there? She could not marry, but then she did not want to marry. She was not the kind to fall in love, she told herself, she was too independent, too sophisticated, and understood men and their weaknesses only too well.

"The Lord designed me for an old maid," she said to herself.

At seven o'clock in the morning--a grey, cheerless morning it was, thought Lydia, looking out of the window--Mrs. Rennett came in with some tea.

"I'm afraid you haven't slept, my dear," she said with a glance at the bed. "It's very trying for you."

She laid her hand upon the girl's arm and squeezed it gently.

"And it's very trying for all of us," she said with a whimsical smile. "I expect we shall all get into fearful trouble."

That had occurred to the girl too, remembering the gloomy picture which Glover had painted in the car.

"Won't this be very serious for you, if the authorities find that you have connived at the escape?" she asked.

"Escape, my dear?" Mrs. Rennett's face became a mask. "I have not heard anything of an escape. All that we know is that poor Mr. Meredith, anticipating that the Home Office would allow him to get married, had made arrangements for the marriage at this house. How Mr. Meredith comes here is quite a matter outside our knowledge," said the diplomatic lady, and Lydia laughed in spite of herself.

She spent half an hour making herself presentable for the forthcoming ordeal.

As a church clock struck eight, there came another tap on the door. It was Mrs. Rennett again.

"They are waiting," she said. Her face was a little pale and her lips trembled.

Lydia, however, was calmness itself, as she walked into the drawing-room ahead of her hostess.

There were four men. Glover and Rennett she knew. A third man wearing a clerical collar she guessed was the officiating priest, and all her attention was concentrated upon the fourth. He was a gaunt, unshaven man, his hair cut short, his face and figure wasted, so that the clothes he wore hung on him. Her first feeling was one of revulsion. Her second was an impulse of pity. James Meredith, for she guessed it was he, appeared wretchedly ill. He swung round as she came in, and looked at her intently, then, walking quickly towards her, he held out his thin hand.

"Miss Beale, isn't it?" he said. "I'm sorry to meet you under such unpleasant circumstances. Glover has explained everything, has he not?"

She nodded.

His deep-set eyes had a magnetic quality that fascinated her.

"You understand the terms? Glover has told you just why this marriage must take place?" he said, lowering his voice. "Believe me, I am deeply grateful to you for falling in with my wishes."

Without preliminary he walked over to where the parson stood.

"We will begin now," he said simply.

The ceremony seemed so unreal to the girl that she did not realise what it portended, not even when a ring (a loosely-fitting ring, for Jack Glover had made the wildest guess at the size) was slipped over her finger. She knelt to receive the solemn benediction and then got slowly to her feet and looked at her husband strangely.

"I think I'm going to faint," she said.

It was Jack Glover who caught her and carried her to the sofa. She woke with a confused idea that somebody was trying to hypnotise her, and she opened her eyes to look upon the sombre face of James Meredith.

"Better?" he asked anxiously. "I'm afraid you've had a trying time, and no sleep you said, Mrs. Rennett?"

Mrs. Rennett shook her head.

"Well, you'll sleep to-night better than I shall," he smiled, and then he turned to Rennett, a grave and anxious man, who stood nervously stroking his little beard, watching the bridegroom. "Mr. Rennett," he said, "I must tell you in the presence of witnesses, that I have escaped from a nursing home to which I had been sent by the clemency of the Secretary of State. When I informed you that I had received permission to come to your house this morning to get married, I told you that which was not true."

"I'm sorry to hear that," said Rennett politely. "And, of course, it is my duty to hand you over to the police, Mr. Meredith." It was all part of the game. The girl watched the play, knowing that this scene was carefully rehearsed, in order to absolve Rennett and his partner from complicity in the escape.

Rennett had hardly spoken when there was a loud rat-tat at the front door, and Jack Glover hastened into the hall to answer. But it was not the policeman he had expected. It was a girl in a big sable coat, muffled up to her eyes. She pushed past Jack, crossed the hall, and walked straight into the drawing-room.

Lydia, standing shakily by Mrs. Rennett's side, saw the visitor come in, and then, as she unfastened her coat, recognised her with a gasp. It was the beautiful girl she had seen in the stalls of the theatre the night before!

"And what can we do for you?" It was Glover's voice again, bland and bantering.

"I want Meredith," said the girl shortly, and Glover chuckled.

"You have wanted Meredith for a long time, Miss Briggerland," he said, "and you're likely to want. You have arrived just a little too late."

The girl's eyes fell upon the parson.

"Too late," she said slowly, "then he is married?"

She bit her red lips and nodded, then she looked at Lydia, and the blue eyes were expressionless.

Meredith had disappeared. Lydia looked round for him in her distress, but he had gone. She wondered if he had gone out to the police, to make his surrender, and she was still wondering when there came the sound of a shot.

It was from the outside of the house, and at the sound Glover ran through the doorway, crossed the hall and flew into the open. It was still snowing, and there was no sign of any human being. He raced along a path which ran parallel with the house, turned the corner and dived into a shrubbery. Here the snow had not laid, and he followed the garden path that twisted and turned through the thick laurel bushes and ended at a roughly-built tool house. As he came in sight of the shed he stopped.

A man lay on the ground, his arm extended, his head in a pool of blood, his grey hand clutching a revolver.

Jack uttered an exclamation of horror and ran to the side of the fallen man.

It was James Meredith, and he was dead.