William Le Queux
The Red Widow: or, The Death-Dealers of Londonскачать книгу бесплатно
CONCERNS A MAN IN WHITE
"I can't understand what it all means. The whole thing is a mystery —a great mystery! I have my suspicions – grave suspicions!" declared the pretty blue-eyed girl emphatically.
"Of what?" asked the young man strolling at her side along the sunny towing-path beside the Thames between Kew and Richmond.
"Well – I hardly know," was her hesitating response. "But I don't like auntie to remain in that house any longer, Gerald. Some evil lurks there; I'm sure of it!"
Her companion smiled.
"Are you quite sure you are not mistaken, Marigold?" he asked in a dubious tone. "Are you absolutely certain that you really saw Mr. Boyne on Thursday night?"
"Why, haven't I already told you exactly what I saw?" asserted the girl excitedly. "I've related in detail all I know. And I repeat that I don't like auntie being there any longer."
"Well," said the young man, as they strolled leisurely along near the water's edge on that Sunday afternoon in summer, their intention being to take tea at Richmond, "if what you have described is an actual fact, then I certainly do think we ought to watch the man very closely."
"You don't doubt me – do you?" exclaimed the girl, with quick resentment.
"Not in the least, Marigold," he replied, halting and looking straight into her clear, almost child-like eyes. "Please do not misunderstand me. But what you have said is so extraordinary that – well, it seems all so weird and amazing!"
"That's just it. The affair is extraordinary, and, as I've said, I hope auntie will leave the place. She has a very good post as housekeeper to Mr. Boyne. Her affliction is against her, I know, but there is something in progress at Bridge Place that is too mysterious for my liking."
"Then let us watch and try to discover what it really is," said Gerald Durrant determinedly.
"Will you really help me?" she asked eagerly.
"Of course. Rely upon me. If I can be of any assistance to you where your aunt is concerned, Marigold, I shall only be too delighted. Surely you know that!" he added, looking again into her eyes with an expression of unspoken admiration and affection.
She murmured her thanks, and the pair – a handsome pair, indeed, they were – went on along the gravelled path in a silence that remained unbroken for some minutes.
Marigold Ramsay was just twenty-one, and an uncommonly pretty girl, though unconsciously so. Men turned to glance a second time at her as she passed. Though a typical London business girl who carried her leather dispatch-case on weekdays, she bore an air of distinction which was unusual in one of her class. Her clear, deep blue eyes, her open countenance, her grace of carriage, her slim suppleness, and the smallness of her hands and feet, all combined to create about her an air of well-bred elegance which was enhanced by a natural grace and charm.
There was nothing loud about her, either in her speech or in her dress. She spoke softly, and she wore a plain coat and skirt of navy gaberdine, and a neat little velvet toque which suited her admirably. She was, indeed, as beautiful as she was elegant, and as intelligent as she was charming.
Many a young man about Lombard Street – where Marigold was employed in the head office of a great joint-stock bank – gazed upon her with admiration as she went to and fro from business, but with only one of them, the man at her side, had she ever become on terms of friendship.
Though Gerald Durrant had spoken no word of love, the pair had almost unconsciously become fast friends. He was a tall, good-looking young fellow, with well-brushed hair and a small moustache carefully trimmed, in whose rather deep-set eyes was an expression of kindly good-fellowship. Erect and athletic, his clear-cut features were typical of the honest, clean-minded young Englishman who, though well-born, was compelled, like Marigold, to earn his living in the City.
He had served in Flanders through the first year of war, but, being invalided out, had been since employed as confidential secretary to the head of a great firm of importers in Mincing Lane.
As, in his well-cut grey tweeds and straw hat, he strode beside her in silence in the sunshine, he reflected. What she had told him was utterly amazing. The whole affair was, indeed, a mystery.
Marigold had first met Gerald at a little corner table of a certain small teashop in Fenchurch Street, where she daily took her frugal luncheon.
One morning as he sat opposite to her he politely passed the salt. From that chance meeting they had each day chatted at the Cedar Tea-Rooms, gradually becoming friends, until one Saturday, he had invited her to Hampton Court, and they had spent the afternoon in the old-world gardens of the Palace so reminiscent of Henry the Eighth and Cardinal Wolsey.
That day's excursion had frequently been repeated, for Marigold's great blue eyes attracted the young man, until one day he cleverly arranged that she should meet his sister – with whom he lived out at Ealing – and the outcome was an invitation to tea on the following Sunday. Thus the chance-made acquaintance ripened until they found themselves looking eagerly forward to lunch time on five days each week, when they would rush to their meeting-place to chatter and enjoy the hour's relaxation from work. Hence it was not surprising that Gerald had fallen violently in love with Marigold, though he had never summoned up sufficient courage to declare his affection.
"What you've told me is a problem which certainly requires investigation," he remarked reflectively after a long silence. "If your aunt is in any real danger, then she should, I quite agree, leave the house. At present, however, I cannot see that she is, or why she should know anything. It is our duty to watch and to form our own conclusions."
"Ah!" cried the girl gratefully, "it's really awfully kind of you, Gerald, to promise to help me. As you know, I have very few men friends, and not one, save yourself, in whom I would place this confidence."
"You know me, Marigold," he said, with a smile of satisfaction. "You know that I will do all I can to help you to solve this extraordinary problem."
The problem which the girl had placed before her admirer was certainly a most puzzling one – sufficiently puzzling, indeed, to excite the curiosity of anybody to whom it was presented.
Had Marigold Ramsay but foreseen the terrible vortex of uncertainty and peril into which their inquiries would lead them, it is probable that she would have hesitated ere she embarked upon an investigation so full of personal risk to both.
In her ignorance of the cunningly-devised counter-plot, which shielded from exposure and justice one of the most diabolical and remarkable conspiracies of modern times, she and her admirer entered cheerfully upon a policy which led to many exciting and perilous adventures, some of which I intend to chronicle in these pages.
That you, my reader, shall clearly understand the cause of Marigold Ramsay's suspicions, it will be as well to here unfold certain queer circumstances which had happened on the previous Thursday night.
Mr. Bernard Boyne, whom Marigold viewed with such distinct suspicion, was a work-a-day man who tramped daily the bustling pavements of Hammersmith, Chiswick, and Bedford Park as an insurance agent, and was well known and very highly respected. He lived in a cheaply-furnished, nine-roomed house in Bridge Place, Hammersmith, a dingy third-class neighbourhood. The exterior of the place was, in summer, rendered somewhat more artistic than its neighbours in the same row by the dusty Virginia creeper which covered its walls and hung untrimmed about its windows. Upon the railings was fastened a brass plate, always well polished, which bore the name "Bernard Boyne – Insurance Agent."
Mr. Boyne had resided in that house for some six years. He was well known to all the tradespeople in the neighbourhood – for he paid his bills weekly – as well as by the working classes whose policies he was so frequently effecting, and whose small premiums he so assiduously collected.
He was agent for several insurance companies of second-class standing. He was also in touch with two well known underwriters at Lloyd's who would insure his commercial clients against practically anything – except bankruptcy.
Year in, year out, he was to be seen, always respectably, and even nattily dressed, passing actively in and about the neighbourhood, keenly on the alert for any new clients and any fresh "proposals."
Probably Mr. Boyne was one of the best known of local personalities. He was a regular attendant at the parish church of St. George the Martyr, Hammersmith, where he acted as sidesman. Further, he was honorary secretary to quite a number of charitable organisations and committees in Hammersmith, and in consequence had become acquainted with most of the wealthiest residents.
"Busy" Boyne – for that was what the people of Hammersmith called him – was a widower, and lived in that small unpretentious house, a very deaf old woman named Mrs. Felmore – the aunt of Marigold Ramsay – looking after him. For several years she had performed the domestic duties, and she did them well, notwithstanding her infirmity.
Now this is what happened.
On Thursday night, on his return after a strenuous day at about ten o'clock, Boyne had entered his small sitting-room and taken his bulky notebook and papers from his pocket. Then he had thrown off his coat and sat down to the cold meal which Mrs. Felmore had prepared for him prior to retiring. Though the house was so dingy, yet everything appertaining to its master's comfort was well ordered, as shown by the fact that the evening paper was lying neatly folded, ready for his hand.
Beneath the hissing incandescent gas-jet Bernard Boyne looked very pale, his eyes deeply set, his brow furrowed and careworn. He seemed weary and out-of-sorts.
"Fool!" he grunted aloud to himself. "I'm growing nervous! I suppose it is that big cheque that I had to-day – seven thousand, eight hundred – the biggest I've ever had. I wonder if I ought to tell Lilla?"
The room was the typical home of a man earning an income on commission just sufficient to enable him to "rub along" in comfort. It was certainly not the room of a man who was receiving cheques for such sums as seven thousand, eight hundred pounds.
At first glance Bernard Boyne, as he stood there in his shirt-sleeves, was an excellent type of the steady, reliable insurance agent, with no soul above "proposals" and "premiums." They constituted his sole aim in life, now that his "dear wife" was dead.
Nobody suspected the man who so piously passed round the bag in St. George the Martyr on Sundays to be a man of mystery. Nobody, indeed, would ever have dreamed that the active man in question would be placing cheques to his account of such value as seven thousand odd pounds.
"I wonder how long I shall remain here?" he whispered to himself. "I wonder what all these good people would say if they but knew – eh? If they knew! But, happily, they don't know!" He chuckled to himself.
He was silent for a moment as he crossed to rearrange the dusty old Venetian blinds.
Then he turned to a half-open cupboard beside the fireplace, and from it took a small wire cage from which he released a tame white rat, which instantly ran up his arm and settled upon his shoulder.
"Poor little Nibby!" he exclaimed, tenderly stroking its sharp pink snout with his forefinger. "Have I neglected you? Poor little fellow! – a prisoner all day! But if I let you out when I'm away some nasty terrier might get you – eh? Come let me atone for my neglect."
And he placed his pet upon the table, over which the rodent ran to investigate the remains of the meal.
Boyne stood watching his pet nibbling at a scrap of sausage.
"Ah!" he gasped in a whisper. "If they knew – but they will never know. They can't!"
A few minutes later his actions were, to say the least, strange.
He flung himself into the old armchair from which the flock stuffing protruded from the worn-out American cloth, and unbuttoning his dusty boots, took them off. Then, in his socks, he crept upstairs, and on the landing listened at the deaf old woman's door. Sounds of heavy snoring apparently satisfied him.
Back again he returned to the parlour, and with a key opened the opposite cupboard beside the fireplace, from which he took a very long, loose coat which seemed to be made of white alpaca. This he shook out and submitted to close scrutiny. It was shaped like a monk's habit, with a leather strap around the waist – a curious garment, for it had a hood attached, with two slits in it for the eyes.
After careful examination of the strange garment, he put it on over his head, drawing down the hood over his eyes, which gave him a hideous appearance – like the ghost of an ancient Inquisitor of Spain, or a member of the medi?val Misericordia Society of Italy, dressed in white instead of black.
Thus attired, he fumbled beneath in his pocket, and then noiselessly ascended the two flights of stairs to an attic door upon which was the circular brass plate of a Yale lock. This he opened, and passing within, closed the door softly behind him.
Bernard Boyne naturally believed himself alone in the house with old Mrs. Felmore sound asleep – but, truth to tell, he was not!
As he ascended the stairs, Marigold's pale face peered around the corner. The shock of seeing such a hideous ghostly form moving silently upstairs proved almost too much for her. But clinging on to the banisters, she managed to repress the cry of alarm which rose to her lips, and she stood there rooted to the spot – full of wonder and bewilderment. She listened breathlessly, still standing in the dark passage which led to the kitchen stairs. Then she detected the sound of the key going into the lock of the upstairs room where she knew Mr. Boyne kept his private papers.
But was it Mr. Boyne? Or was it an intruder who had adopted that garb in order to frighten any person he might encounter? Besides, why should Mr. Boyne assume such a strange disguise before entering the room where his business papers were stored?
Now upon that summer night Marigold had called about nine o'clock to visit her aunt, who had in years past been as a mother to her, to have a snack of supper, as she often did. Afterwards she had helped her aunt to prepare Mr. Boyne's frugal meal. Then old Mrs. Felmore, feeling rather unwell, had gone to bed, leaving her niece in the kitchen to write an urgent letter to Gerald, which she wanted to post before midnight.
As she finished the letter, she had heard someone enter, and not desiring that Mr. Boyne should know of her presence there at that hour, she had moved about quietly, and was just about to escape from the house when she had seen that strangely-garbed figure ascending the stairs.
The girl's first impulse had been to waken her aunt and raise an alarm that an intruder had entered the place. But on seeing that the supper had been eaten, and that Mr. Boyne's hat and coat lay upon the sofa, she at once decided that the figure that had ascended the stairs to the locked room was actually that of the master of the house.
"Why is he dressed like that?" she asked herself in a whisper, as she stood in the front parlour. "What can it mean?"
She glanced around the room. The cupboard beside the fireplace, which stood open, and from which Boyne had taken his strange disguise, caught her eye. She had never before seen that cupboard open, for her aunt had always told her that Mr. Boyne kept some of his important insurance papers there. Therefore, with curiosity, the girl approached it, finding it practically empty, save for a woman's big racoon muff, and with it a photograph – that of a handsome, well-preserved woman of about forty, across the front of which had been scrawled in a thin, feminine hand the signature, "Lilla, January, 1919."
Who was Lilla? She wondered.
Mr. Boyne she knew as a pleasant, easy-going man, full of generosity so far as his limited means allowed. He was a widower, who frequently referred to his "poor dear wife," and would descant upon her good qualities and how affectionately they had lived together for ten years.
The photograph, which she examined beneath the light, was quite a new one, and dated – hence it could not be that of the late Mrs. Boyne.
"I'll come back and tell auntie to-morrow," she said to herself. "She ought to know – or one night she'll see him and get a shock like I've had. And her heart is not too strong. Yes – I must warn her – then no doubt she'll watch."
With those words she dabbed her hair in front of the cheap mirror over the mantelshelf, and then treading on tiptoe, went to the front door and let herself out.
This was the strange story Marigold had related to Gerald Durrant on that sunny afternoon beside the Thames – a story which had aroused his curiosity and held him fascinated.
WHO IS MRS. BRAYBOURNE?
Bernard Boyne was certainly a mystery man in Hammersmith, yet nobody suspected it. In all the years he had lived in the neighbourhood his actions had never aroused a single breath of suspicion.
In pious black he passed the collection bag around to the congregation of St. George the Martyr each Sunday morning, and afterwards, with a deep bow, handed the bag to the rubicund vicar of his parish.
Often he had been approached to serve upon the municipality of the borough, but he had always declined because of stress of work and for "family" reasons. Mr. Boyne could have achieved the highest local honours, aldermanic and otherwise, had he cared for them, but notwithstanding his great popularity, he was ever retiring, and even anxious to efface himself.
When that night he descended the stairs of his house in Bridge Place, all unconscious that he had been observed ascending them, he entered his little parlour, where he divested himself of the ugly white overall and locked it away, together with the woman's muff and the photograph. Then he paced the room in indecision, ignorant that Marigold had only vacated it a few minutes before.
He caught his pet, Nibby, after several attempts, and having replaced him in his cage, again stood with knit brows, still apparently uncertain how to act. He was in a bad humour, for now and then he uttered imprecations beneath his breath. Whatever had occurred upstairs had no doubt upset him. A further imprecation fell from his lips as he cursed his luck, and then, with sudden resolve, he resumed his boots, took his felt hat and stick, turned out the gas, and, going out into the narrow hall, extinguished the light and left the house.
He was in a bad temper on that warm summer's night as he strode hurriedly to the Hammersmith Broadway station, whence he took ticket to Sloane Square.
"Rotten luck! Lionel is a fool!" he declared to himself viciously, as he approached the pigeon-hole to take his ticket. "But one can't have all the good things of life. One must fail sometimes. And yet," he added, "I can't think why I've failed. But so long as it isn't a bad omen, I don't care! Why should I?"
And he took his ticket and descended the stairs to the train.
On arrival at Sloane Square he walked along to Pont Street to a large, red-brick house, into which he admitted himself with the latchkey upon his chain, a key very similar to that of the locked room in Bridge Place.
In the well-furnished hall he encountered a smart, good-looking French lady's maid.
"Ah! Good-evening, Annette. Is Madame at home?" he asked.
"Oui, monsieur," the girl promptly replied. "Madame is upstairs in the boudoir."
Boyne, who was evidently no stranger there, hung up his hat and passed upstairs to a room on the second floor, a cosy, tastefully-furnished apartment, where, at a table upon which stood a reading-lamp with a green silk shade, a handsome, dark-haired woman in a pearl-grey evening frock sat writing a letter.
"Hallo, Lilla! I'm glad you haven't gone to bed!" he exclaimed. "I want to have a chat with you. I met Annette downstairs. A pity that infernal girl hasn't gone to her room. I don't want her to overhear anything. Recollect C?line!"
"I'll send the girl to bed," said the woman, pressing an electric button. "Anything wrong?"
"Nothing very seriously wrong," was his reply.
And at his words the woman, who had betrayed alarm at sight of him, gave a sigh of relief.
Bernard Boyne flung himself into a silk-covered easy-chair, and, clasping his hands behind his head, gazed around the luxurious little room. It was, indeed, very different to his own surroundings in drab, work-a-day Hammersmith. Here taste and luxury were displayed on every hand; a soft, old-rose carpet, with hangings and upholstery to match – a woman's den which had been furnished regardless of expense by one of the best firms in the West End. Truth to tell, that elegant West End house was his own, and the handsome woman, Lilla, though she passed as Mrs. Braybourne, and was very popular in quite a good set, was his own wife.скачать книгу бесплатно