The Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace
Mrs. Cole-Mortimer was a representative of a numerous class of women who live so close to the border-line which separates good society from society which is not quite as good, that the members of either set thought she was in the other. She had a small house where she gave big parties, and nobody quite knew how this widow of an Indian colonel made both ends meet. It was the fact that her menage was an expensive one to maintain; she had a car, she entertained in London in the season, and disappeared from the metropolis when it was the correct thing to disappear, a season of exile which comes between the Goodwood Race Meeting in the south and the Doncaster Race Meeting in the north.
Lydia had been surprised to receive a visit from this elegant lady, and had readily accepted the story of her friendship with James Meredith. Mrs. Cole-Mortimer's invitation she had welcomed. She needed some distraction, something which would smooth out the ravelled threads of life which were now even more tangled than she had ever expected they could be.
Mr. Rennett had handed to her a thousand pounds the day after the wedding, and when she had recovered from the shock of possessing such a large sum, she hired a taxicab and indulged herself in a wild orgy of shopping.
The relief she experienced when he informed her he was taking charge of her affairs and settling the debts which had worried her for three years was so great that she felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted from her heart.
It was in one of her new frocks that Lydia, feeling more confident than usual, made her call. She had expected to find a crowd at the house in Hyde Park Crescent, and she was surprised when she was ushered into the drawing-room to find only four people present.
Mrs. Cole-Mortimer was a chirpy, pale little woman of forty-something. It would be ungallant to say how much that "something" represented. She came toward Lydia with outstretched hands.
"My dear," she said with extravagant pleasure, "I am glad you were able to come. You know Miss Briggerland and Mr. Briggerland?"
Lydia looked up at the tall figure of the man she had seen in the stalls the night before her wedding and recognised him instantly.
"Mr. Marcus Stepney, I don't think you have met."
Lydia bowed to a smart looking man of thirty, immaculately attired. He was very handsome, she thought, in a dark way, but he was just a little too "new" to please her. She did not like fashion-plate men, and although the most captious of critics could not have found fault with his correct attire, he gave her the impression of being over-dressed.
Lydia had not expected to meet Miss Briggerland and her father, although she had a dim recollection that Mrs. Cole-Mortimer had mentioned her name. Then in a flash she recalled the suspicions of Jack Glover, which she had covered with ridicule. The association made her feel a little uncomfortable, and Jean Briggerland, whose intuition was a little short of uncanny, must have read the doubt in her face.
"Mrs. Meredith expected to see us, didn't she, Margaret?" she said, addressing the twittering hostess. "Surely you told her we were great friends?"
"Of course I did, my dear. Knowing your dear cousin and his dear father, it was not remarkable that I should know the whole of the family," and she smiled wisely from one to the other.
Of course! How absurd she was, thought Lydia. She had almost forgotten, and probably Jack Glover had forgotten too, that the Briggerlands and the Merediths were related.
She found herself talking in a corner of the room with the girl, and fell to studying her face anew. A closer inspection merely consolidated her earlier judgment. She smiled inwardly as she remembered Jack Glover's ridiculous warning. It was like killing a butterfly with a steam hammer, to loose so much vengeance against this frail piece of china.
"And how do you feel now that you're very rich?" asked Jean kindly.
"I haven't realised it yet," smiled Lydia.
"I suppose you have yet to settle with the lawyers. Who are they? Oh yes, of course Mr. Glover was poor Jim's solicitor." She sighed. "I dislike lawyers," she said with a shiver, "they are so heavily paternal! They feel that they and they only are qualified to direct your life and your actions. I suppose it is second nature with them. Then, of course, they make an awful lot of money out of commissions and fees, though I'm sure Jack Glover wouldn't worry about that. He's really a nice boy," she said earnestly, "and I don't think you could have a better friend."
Lydia glowed at the generosity of this girl whom the man had so maligned.
"He has been very good to me," she said, "although, of course, he is a little fussy."
Jean's lips twitched with amusement.
"Has he warned you against me?" she asked solemnly. "Has he told you what a terrible ogre I am?" And then without waiting for a reply: "I sometimes think poor Jack is just a little--well, I wouldn't say mad, but a little queer. His dislikes are so violent. He positively loathes Margaret, though why I have never been able to understand."
"He doesn't hate me," laughed Lydia, and Jean looked at her strangely.
"No, I suppose not," she said. "I can't imagine anybody hating you, Lydia. May I call you by your Christian name?"
"I wish you would," said Lydia warmly.
"I can't imagine anybody hating you," repeated the girl thoughtfully. "And, of course, Jack wouldn't hate you because you're his client--a very rich and attractive client too, my dear." She tapped the girl's cheek and Lydia, for some reason, felt foolish.
But as though unconscious of the embarrassment she had caused, Jean went on.
"I don't really blame him, either. I've a shrewd suspicion that all these warnings against me and against other possible enemies will furnish a very excellent excuse for seeing you every day and acting as your personal bodyguard!"
Lydia shook her head.
"That part of it he has relegated already," she said, giving smile for smile. "He has appointed Mr. Jaggs as my bodyguard."
"Mr. Jaggs?" The tone was even, the note of inquiry was not strained.
"He's an old gentleman in whom Mr. Glover is interested, an old army pensioner. Beyond the fact that he hasn't the use of his right arm, and limps with his left leg, and that he likes beer and cheese, he seems an admirable watch dog," said Lydia humorously.
"Jaggs?" repeated the girl. "I wonder where I've heard that name before. Is he a detective?"
"No, I don't think so. But Mr. Glover thinks I ought to have some sort of man sleeping in my new flat and Jaggs was duly engaged."
Soon after this Mr. Marcus Stepney came over and Lydia found him rather uninteresting. Less boring was Briggerland, for he had a fund of stories and experiences to relate, and he had, too, one of those soft soothing voices that are so rare in men.
It was dark when she came out with Mr. and Miss Briggerland, and she felt that the afternoon had not been unprofitably spent.
For she had a clearer conception of the girl's character, and was getting Jack Glover's interest into better perspective. The mercenary part of it made her just a little sick. There was something so mysterious, so ugly in his outlook on life, and there might not be a little self-interest in his care for her.
She stood on the step of the house talking to the girl, whilst Mr. Briggerland lit a cigarette with a patent lighter. Hyde Park Crescent was deserted save for a man who stood near the railings which protected the area of Mrs. Cole-Mortimer's house. He was apparently tying his shoe laces.
They went down on the sidewalk, and Mr. Briggerland looked for his car.
"I'd like to take you home. My chauffeur promised to be here at four o'clock. These men are most untrustworthy."
From the other end of the Crescent appeared the lights of a car. At first Lydia thought it might be Mr. Briggerland's, and she was going to make her excuses for she wanted to go home alone. The car was coming too, at a tremendous pace. She watched it as it came furiously toward her, and she did not notice that Mr. Briggerland and his daughter had left her standing alone on the sidewalk and had withdrawn a few paces.
Suddenly the car made a swerve, mounted the sidewalk and dashed upon her. It seemed that nothing could save her, and she stood fascinated with horror, waiting for death.
Then an arm gripped her waist, a powerful arm that lifted her from her feet and flung her back against the railings, as the car flashed past, the mud-guard missing her by an inch. The machine pulled up with a jerk, and the white-faced girl saw Briggerland and Jean running toward her.
"I should never have forgiven myself if anything had happened. I think my chauffeur must be drunk," said Briggerland in an agitated voice.
She had no words. She could only nod, and then she remembered her preserver, and she turned to meet the solemn eyes of a bent old man, whose pointed, white beard and bristling white eyebrows gave him a hawk-like appearance. His right hand was thrust into his pocket. He was touching his battered hat with the other.
"Beg pardon, miss," he said raucously, "name of Jaggs! And I have reported for dooty!"