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THE HUSH OF THE court, which had been broken when the foreman of the jury returned their verdict, was intensified as the Judge, with a quick glance over his pince-nez at the tall prisoner, marshalled his papers with the precision and method which old men display in tense moments such as these. He gathered them together, white paper and blue and buff and stacked them in a neat heap on a tiny ledge to the left of his desk. Then he took his pen and wrote a few words on a printed paper before him.
Another breathless pause and he groped beneath the desk and brought out a small square of black silk and carefully laid it over his white wig. Then he spoke:
"James Meredith, you have been convicted after a long and patient trial of the awful crime of wilful murder. With the verdict of the jury I am in complete agreement. There is little doubt, after hearing the evidence of the unfortunate lady to whom you were engaged, and whose evidence you attempted in the most brutal manner to refute, that, instigated by your jealousy, you shot Ferdinand Bulford. The evidence of Miss Briggerland that you had threatened this poor young man, and that you left her presence in a temper, is unshaken. By a terrible coincidence, Mr. Bulford was in the street outside your fiancée's door when you left, and maddened by your insane jealousy, you shot him dead.
"To suggest, as you have through your counsel, that you called at Miss Briggerland's that night to break off your engagement and that the interview was a mild one and unattended by recriminations is to suggest that this lady has deliberately committed perjury in order to swear away your life, and when to that disgraceful charge you produce a motive, namely that by your death or imprisonment Miss Briggerland, who is your cousin, would benefit to a considerable extent, you merely add to your infamy. Nobody who saw the young girl in the box, a pathetic, and if I may say, a beautiful figure, could accept for one moment your fantastic explanation.
"Who killed Ferdinand Bulford? A man without an enemy in the world. That tragedy cannot be explained away. It now only remains for me to pass the sentence which the law imposes. The jury's recommendation to mercy will be forwarded to the proper quarter ..."
He then proceeded to pass sentence of death, and the tall man in the dock listened without a muscle of his face moving.
So ended the great Berkeley Street Murder Trial, and when a few days later it was announced that the sentence of death had been commuted to one of penal servitude for life, there were newspapers and people who hinted at mistaken leniency and suggested that James Meredith would have been hanged if he were a poor man instead of being, as he was, the master of vast wealth.
"That's that," said Jack Glover between his teeth, as he came out of court with the eminent King's Counsel who had defended his friend and client, "the little lady wins."
His companion looked sideways at him and smiled.
"Honestly, Glover, do you believe that poor girl could do so dastardly a thing as lie about the man she loves?"
"She loves!" repeated Jack Glover witheringly.
"I think you are prejudiced," said the counsel, shaking his head. "Personally, I believe that Meredith is a lunatic; I am satisfied that all he told us about the interview he had with the girl was born of a diseased imagination. I was terribly impressed when I saw Jean Briggerland in the box. She—by Jove, there is the lady!"
They had reached the entrance of the Court. A big car was standing by the kerb and one of the attendants was holding open the door for a girl dressed in black. They had a glimpse of a pale, sad face of extraordinary beauty, and then she disappeared behind the drawn blinds.
The counsel drew a long sigh.
"Mad!" he said huskily. "He must be mad! If ever I saw a pure soul in a woman's face, it is in hers!"
"You've been in the sun, Sir John—you're getting sentimental," said Jack Glover brutally, and the eminent lawyer choked indignantly.
Jack Glover had a trick of saying rude things to his friends, even when those friends were twenty years his senior, and by every rule of professional etiquette entitled to respectful treatment.
"Really!" said the outraged Sir John. "There are times, Glover, when you are insufferable!"
But by this time Jack Glover was swinging along the Old Bailey, his hands in his pockets, his silk hat on the back of his head.
He found the grey-haired senior member of the firm of Rennett, Glover and Simpson (there had been no Simpson in the firm for ten years) on the point of going home.
Mr. Rennett sat down at the sight of his junior.
"I heard the news by 'phone," he said. "Ellbery says there is no ground for appeal, but I think the recommendation to mercy will save his life—besides it is a crime passionelle, and they don't hang for homicidal jealousy. I suppose it was the girl's evidence that turned the trick?"
"And she looked like an angel just out of the refrigerator," he said despairingly. "Ellbery did his poor best to shake her, but the old fool is half in love with her—I left him raving about her pure soul and her other celestial etceteras."
Mr. Rennett stroked his iron grey beard.
"She's won," he said, but the other turned on him with a snarl.
"Not yet!" he said almost harshly. "She hasn't won till Jimmy Meredith is dead or—"
"Or—?" repeated his partner significantly. "That 'or' won't come off, Jack. He'll get a life sentence as sure as 'eggs is eggs.' I'd go a long way to help Jimmy; I'd risk my practice and my name."
Jack Glover looked at his partner in astonishment.
"You old sportsman!" he said admiringly. "I didn't know you were so fond of Jimmy?"
Mr. Rennett got up and began pulling on his gloves. He seemed a little uncomfortable at the sensation he had created.
"His father was my first client," he said apologetically. "One of the best fellows that ever lived. He married late in life, that was why he was such a crank over the question of marriage. You might say that old Meredith founded our firm. Your father and Simpson and I were nearly at our last gasp when Meredith gave us his business. That was our turning point. Your father—God rest him—was never tired of talking about it. I wonder he never told you."
"I think he did," said Jack thoughtfully. "And you really would go a long way—Rennett—I mean, to help Jim Meredith?"
"All the way," said old Rennett shortly.
Jack Glover began whistling a long lugubrious tune.
"I'm seeing the old boy to-morrow," he said. "By the way, Rennett, did you see that a fellow had been released from prison to a nursing home for a minor operation the other day? There was a question asked in Parliament about it. Is it usual?"
"It can be arranged," said Rennett. "Why?"
"Do you think in a few months' time we could get Jim Meredith into a nursing home for—say an appendix operation?"
"Has he appendicitis?" asked the other in surprise.
"He can fake it," said Jack calmly. "It's the easiest thing in the world to fake."
Rennett looked at the other under his heavy eyebrows.
"You're thinking of the 'or'?" he challenged, and Jack nodded.
"It can be done—if he's alive," said Rennett after a pause.
"He'll be alive," prophesied his partner, "now the only thing is—where shall I find the girl?"CHAPTER 2
LYDIA BEALE GATHERED UP the scraps of paper that littered her table, rolled them into a ball and tossed them into the fire.
There was a knock at the door, and she half turned in her chair to meet with a smile her stout landlady who came in carrying a tray on which stood a large cup of tea and two thick and wholesome slices of bread and jam.
"Finished, Miss Beale?" asked the landlady anxiously.
"For the day, yes," said the girl with a nod, and stood up stretching herself stiffly.
She was slender, a head taller than the dumpy Mrs. Morgan. The dark violet eyes and the delicate spiritual face she owed to her Celtic ancestors, the grace of her movements, no less than the perfect hands that rested on the drawing board, spoke eloquently of breed.
"I'd like to see it, miss, if I may," said Mrs. Morgan, wiping her hands on her apron in anticipation.
Lydia pulled open a drawer of the table and took out a large sheet of Windsor board. She had completed her pencil sketch and Mrs. Morgan gasped appreciatively. It was a picture of a masked man holding a villainous crowd at bay at the point of a pistol.
"That's wonderful, miss," she said in awe. "I suppose those sort of things happen too?"
The girl laughed as she put the drawing away.
"They happen in stories which I illustrate, Mrs. Morgan," she said dryly. "The real brigands of life come in the shape of lawyers' clerks with writs and summonses. It's a relief from those mad fashion plates I draw, anyway. Do you know, Mrs. Morgan, that the sight of a dressmaker's shop window makes me positively ill!"
Mrs. Morgan shook her head sympathetically and Lydia changed the subject.
"Has anybody been this afternoon?" she asked.
"Only the young man from Spadd & Newton," replied the stout woman with a sigh. "I told 'im you was out, but I'm a bad liar."
The girl groaned.
"I wonder if I shall ever get to the end of those debts," she said in despair. "I've enough writs in the drawer to paper the house, Mrs. Morgan."
Three years ago Lydia Beale's father had died and she had lost the best friend and companion that any girl ever had. She knew he was in debt, but had no idea how extensively he was involved. A creditor had seen her the day after the funeral and had made some uncouth reference to the convenience of a death which had automatically cancelled George Beale's obligations. It needed only that to spur the girl to an action which was as foolish as it was generous. She had written to all the people to whom her father owed money and had assumed full responsibility for debts amounting to hundreds of pounds.
It was the Celt in her that drove her to shoulder the burden which she was ill-equipped to carry, but she had never regretted her impetuous act.
There were a few creditors who, realising what had happened, did not bother her, and there were others ...
She earned a fairly good salary on the staff of the Daily Megaphone, which made a feature of fashion, but she would have had to have been the recipient of a cabinet minister's emoluments to have met the demands which flowed in upon her a month after she had accepted her father's obligations.
"Are you going out to-night, miss?" asked the woman.
Lydia roused herself from her unpleasant thoughts.
"Yes. I'm making some drawings of the dresses in Curfew's new play. I'll be home somewhere around twelve."
Mrs. Morgan was half-way across the room when she turned back.
"One of these days you'll get out of all your troubles, miss, you see if you don't! I'll bet you'll marry a rich young gentleman."
Lydia, sitting on the edge of the table, laughed.
"You'd lose your money, Mrs. Morgan," she said, "rich young gentlemen only marry poor working girls in the kind of stories I illustrate. If I marry it will probably be a very poor young gentleman who will become an incurable invalid and want nursing. And I shall hate him so much that I can't be happy with him, and pity him so much that I can't run away from him."
Mrs. Morgan sniffed her disagreement.
"There are things that happen—" she began.
"Not to me—not miracles, anyway," said Lydia, still smiling, "and I don't know that I want to get married. I've got to pay all these bills first, and by the time they are settled I'll be a grey-haired old lady in a mob cap."
Lydia had finished her tea and was standing somewhat scantily attired in the middle of her bedroom, preparing for her theatre engagement, when Mrs. Morgan returned.
"I forgot to tell you, miss," she said, "there was a gentleman and a lady called."
"A gentleman and a lady? Who were they?"
"I don't know, Miss Beale. I was lying down at the time, and the girl answered the door. I gave her strict orders to say that you were out."
"Did they leave any name?"
"No, miss. They just asked if Miss Beale lived here, and could they see her."
"H'm!" said Lydia with a frown. "I wonder what we owe them!"
She dismissed the matter from her mind, and thought no more of it until she stopped on her way to the theatre to learn from the office by telephone the number of drawings required.
The chief sub-editor answered her.
"And, by the way," he added, "there was an inquiry for you at the office to-day—I found a note of it on my desk when I came in to-night. Some old friends of yours who want to see you. Brand told them you were going to do a show at the Erving Theatre to-night, so you'll probably see them."
"Who are they?" she asked, puzzled.
She had few friends, old or new.
"I haven't the foggiest idea," was the reply.
At the theatre she saw nobody she knew, though she looked round interestedly, nor was she approached in any of the entr'actes.
In the row ahead of her, and a little to her right, were two people who regarded her curiously as she entered. The man was about fifty, very dark and bald—the skin of his head was almost copper-coloured, though he was obviously a European, for the eyes which beamed benevolently upon her through powerful spectacles were blue, but so light a blue that by contrast with the mahogany skin of his clean-shaven face, they seemed almost white.
The girl who sat with him was fair, and to Lydia's artistic eye, singularly lovely. Her hair was a mop of fine gold. The colour was natural, Lydia was too sophisticated to make any mistake about that. Her features were regular and flawless. The young artist thought she had never seen so perfect a "cupid" mouth in her life. There was something so freshly, fragrantly innocent about the girl that Lydia's heart went out to her, and she could hardly keep her eyes on the stage. The unknown seemed to take almost as much interest in her, for twice Lydia surprised her backward scrutiny. She found herself wondering who she was. The girl was beautifully dressed, and about her neck was a platinum chain that must have hung to her waist—a chain which was broken every few inches by a big emerald.
It required something of an effort of concentration to bring her mind back to the stage and her work. With a book on her knee she sketched the somewhat bizarre costumes which had aroused a mild public interest in the play, and for the moment forgot her entrancing companion.
She came through the vestibule at the end of the performance, and drew her worn cloak more closely about her slender shoulders, for the night was raw, and a sou'westerly wind blew the big wet snowflakes under the protecting glass awning into the lobby itself. The favoured playgoers minced daintily through the slush to their waiting cars, then taxis came into the procession of waiting vehicles, there was a banging of cab doors, a babble of orders to the scurrying attendants, until something like order was evolved from the chaos.
Lydia shook her head. An omnibus would take her to Fleet Street, but two had passed, packed with passengers, and she was beginning to despair, when a particularly handsome taxi pulled up at the kerb.
The driver leant over the shining apron which partially protected him from the weather, and shouted:
"Is Miss Beale there?"
The girl started in surprise, taking a step toward the cab.
"I am Miss Beale," she said.
"Your editor has sent me for you," said the man briskly.
The editor of the Megaphone had been guilty of many eccentric acts. He had expressed views on her drawing which she shivered to recall. He had aroused her in the middle of the night to sketch dresses at a fancy dress ball, but never before had he done anything so human as to send a taxi for her. Nevertheless, she would not look at the gift cab too closely, and she stepped into the warm interior.
Excerpted from The Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 21, 2011
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