William Le Queux.

The Red Widow: or, The Death-Dealers of London



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CHAPTER XIII
RELATES A STRANGE CONVERSATION

"Who are you?" shrieked the weird, hooded figure in the white cloak in a fierce voice, standing up suddenly above the seated man who was in exactly similar disguise.

The pair, one seated, and the other having suddenly sprung up, faced each other. The smaller, and apparently weaker figure had assumed a distinctly offensive attitude. His eyes shone behind the narrow slits.

"Fool!" laughed Boyne, who was seated. "Sit down, you idiotic fool!" And he waved his hand in contempt. "If I had not looked after you, and hidden you here, you would long ago have been given over to the hangman. Just remember that!" he shouted loudly. "Sink that into your skull, sleepy brain!"

"But Ц but," faltered the figure. "But who are you? You are not Wisden!"

Boyne, disguised in his white cloak with hood Ц the two presenting the most weird spectacle in the light of day in that dingy room in Hammersmith Ц started, then hesitated for a second.

"Yes," he replied, in a hard voice. "I am Wisden! Now you know! Wisden, of Twywell! Do you recollect the name?"

"You Ц Wisden!" gasped the person whose countenance was disguised by that hideous hood. "I Ц I Ц !" And he sank back into his chair.

"Now you know, you accursed fool!" exclaimed the mystery man. "And let that also sink into your silly noddle. Further, keep a still tongue. Be silent when you are up there, for people may listen and hear you. If they do, then you'll be discovered, and your death will be quick. Recollect that they are waiting for you Ц the affair isn't forgotten."

"No," sighed the weird figure. "No Ц I know it hasn't been forgotten. My crime! Чmy crime!"

"Yes. But don't refer to it. Just keep a level head, my dear Lionel, as you always do. I will still look after you if you remain silent and do what I order. I will supply you with everything. But be very careful that when I carry you up your food you don't speak. Somebody might overhear. These cursed walls have ears, although the old woman Felmore is deaf. Do you understand me?" he asked in a more imperative voice, rising, taking him by the shoulders, and shaking him. "Now tell me Ц you understand Ц eh?"

"Yes, yes!" the other gibbered in a strange tone. "You Ц Wisden Ц Willie Wisden! Oh, yes! I Ц I see! Dear old Willie, who was with me at Monte Carlo. Oh, yes! And that beautiful microscope?"

"You've got it upstairs. Don't you recollect it? Why, I gave it to you in the Terminus Hotel, in Marseilles, three years ago. Are you growing foolish? Surely not!"

"Yes. Oh, yes! I recollect now Ц the beautiful mike Ц oh, yes! Oh, what that instrument must have cost Ц oh, what a lot!†Ц what a lot of money!"

"It did cost a good bit. And it's yours. So don't worry. I'll look after you, Lionel. But don't play the fool, or you'll go to the gallows over that unfortunate little affair Ц I warn you! Scotland Yard is looking everywhere for you, and they would have had you long ago if I hadn't taken you in hand and had pity upon you."

For a few moments the strange figure huddled in the chair remained silent.

"Yes Ц I know.

And Ц and Lilla?" he asked.

"She's dead Ц died a year ago," was Boyne's prompt reply.

"Lilla dead!" sighed the other. "Poor Lilla! She was a very good wife to you Ц just as Alice was to me! Poor Lilla!"

"Don't you bother about my personal affairs, Lionel. Just keep your own end up, and breathe the bit of fresh air now while you can before you go back to your own quarters. I don't like you getting up through that trap-door on to the roof. Somebody might see you one night."

"My quarters! My prison, you mean!" he retorted bitterly.

"Prison? Fool, what are you saying? Your room is surely comfortable, and I do my best for you. If you want to get out Ц do so. And you'll be arrested by the first police constable who comes along."

"But it is prison!" replied the mysterious figure in a voice asking for pity. "Prison!"

"Well Ц take your liberty, and take the consequences," the other responded roughly.

"Look what I do! I'm always working for you Ц always!"

Boyne laughed harshly.

"Very well! Give it up, and I'll fling you out into the gutter Ц now Ц just as you are! I shan't suffer," he added, "but you will! By gad you will!"

The man from upstairs cringed and drew his breath.

"No! No! Wisden! No!†Ц don't do that! I'll do all you ask Ц all! Alice Ц my dear Alice Ц always said you were my best friend Ц my very best friend."

"And so I am, my dear fellow!" exclaimed Boyne. "I've done my best for you all along Ц all along."

"Look!" cried the lonely man who lived upstairs, and whose movements were never heard by deaf old Mrs. Felmore. "What's that?"

And with a shriek of horror he pointed to a corner of the dingy room.

"What? I don't see anything!" was Boyne's reply. "You've got one of those spooky fits of yours coming on again. You'd better go back."

"I don't want to go back," whined the person whose Christian name was Lionel. "Surely you won't send me back, Wisden?"

"Yes; for your own sake you must lie low. Try to understand what I say. We are mutually interested in each other. It is to the advantage of both that you should remain here. I am not your jailer, recollect. If you wish, you can walk out now. But I warn you that you will walk straight into the hangman's noose. Scotland Yard and the Old Bailey are awaiting you, and are ready, never fear."

"But where's Alice?" asked the squeaky voice.

"Alice is dead."

"Are you sure? How and where did she die?"

"In Avignon. In a house close behind the Pope's Palace. Surely you remember? You were there."

"I wasn't there. I swear I was not. When we were in Avignon we were all happy together. Alice with me, and you with Lilla."

"My dear boy, your memory is at fault. Did you not stay in Avignon while Lilla and I motored to Paris? Now think! Did you not take an apartment in the Rue Cardinale, and remain after our departure? Alice, your wife, died there! Why, only a few minutes ago you deplored her loss!"

"Yes. But how can I be certain that she is dead?" asked the other dubiously.

"Because I tell you she is. I'm not a liar!" cried Boyne fiercely, again assuming an overbearing attitude.

"But I want to go home Ц to see my home again Ц the garden Ц the flowers Ц and Alice."

"You'll never see her again. And you are safer here. So you had better go back to your room and keep a still tongue. And be careful not to make a noise. You made a horrible row the other night."

"I didn't!"

"Yes, you did. I could hear you moving about above me. You should move your bed across to the other side, near the trap-door that goes out on to the roof of which you are so fond."

"Ah! because I get air. But I only open it and go out after it's dark, I assure you."

"Well, you've got plenty of stores. I bring you bread and fresh meat and vegetables, and you've got the cistern full of water. Why, if I went away for for a month or six weeks you wouldn't starve. I always see to that. And look what it costs me!" exclaimed the humble insurance agent.

"Ah! Nibby. Dear little Nibby!" cried the weird man from upstairs in that inhuman, high-pitched voice, as he noticed the tame rat dart across the threadbare carpet.

"Yes, Nibby knows you!" laughed the man Boyne. "He's a dear little fellow, isn't he?"

"Yes. I miss him after so long," replied the man. "Can't I take him upstairs with me?" he asked piteously.

"No, he would gnaw through the door to get back to me, and old mother Felmore would find rats in the place. She knows of Nibby, but we don't want to arouse her curiosity. Women, deaf or not, are always dangerous when one has secrets."

"And how is Mrs. Pollen Ц eh?"

"Mrs. Pollen!" echoed Boyne. "Whom do you mean?"

"Why, Ena Pollen, the friend of Lilla. You know the woman Ц tall, handsome, red-haired. She worked a dirty trick upon some man she met. They had supper at the Ritz. He died, and nobody suspected. Ugh! Isn't it funny how one can lead a crooked life and everyone think one perfectly honest?"

"Well, you're not honest, my dear Lionel," laughed Bernard Boyne. "If it had not been for me I repeat you'd have been hanged for that affair two years ago."

The man in the hooded cloak shuddered.

"Yes," he replied in a changed voice. "You are right; I owe everything to you, and that's why I do all you ask of me. They say there is no genius without lunacy. So I suppose you think me a lunatic Ц eh?"

"I don't think, Lionel Ц I know you are," Boyne responded. "You've acted as a silly fool, and you made a serious slip in killing the girl, but I'm trying to save you from the police. They are still hunting over all Europe for you."

"But did I kill her, Wisden? Did I? I don't remember it!"

"Remember it. Why, you've got no memory. You only remember all your science and your wonderful knowledge Ц a knowledge unequalled. Yes! you killed her, and by an ace I rescued you from arrest. You recollect little Maggie?"

"Ah! yes. I Ц I know what you mean!" gasped the other. "Little Maggie! But I didn't kill her!"

"You did. Your damnable criminal instincts led you to kill her, and that's why Scotland Yard is searching daily for you!"

"Maggie! I Ц I killed Maggie!"

"Yes, you did Ц and you know it, you infernal hypocrite!" cried Boyne. "Now, don't try to argue. I'm in my right senses. You aren't! I haven't time or inclination to have a war of words over it. Besides," he added, glancing at his watch, "Mrs. Felmore will be back at any minute, so you must get upstairs again Ц and without delay."

"But can't I go home? I Ц I want to see my garden Ц the flowers Ц "

"No!" snapped Boyne. "You can't. You'll stay here."

"Do let me go Чdo," pleaded the other in that curious high-pitched voice. "I do want to see my garden again."

"You'll see the inside of a prison if you are not very careful," Boyne declared in a warning tone. "So don't think about going home."

"But am I never to go home?"

"At your own risk. Remember, I'll take no responsibility. Your description and photograph are in every police-station here and on the Continent, and, as I've told you lots of times, the moment you step outside into the street you will court danger. You'll be arrested by the first policeman who sees you!"

"Surely I may go home Ц if only for a day! You could take me there."

"Later on, perhaps," Boyne said encouragingly, in a tone which he would have adopted to a child. "For the present you must remain where you are, safe. And don't make a noise, otherwise somebody may hear you," he urged.

"I don't make any noise. I'm always so careful. And I only go out on the roof at night."

"The less you go out there the better," growled the insurance agent. "I run risks every time I come up to bring your food. Only the other day Mrs. Felmore was saying that Nibby seemed to have an enormous appetite. That's why I've brought you up that store of tinned stuff."

"I haven't had any tea for a week."

"But you've got your gas-ring and your kettle."

"The kettle leaks."

"Then why the deuce didn't you tell me that before? I'll bring you a new one to-day."

"And some fresh milk and some eggs. I've tasted none for weeks."

"Well, if you are in hiding you must put up with what food you can get," growled Boyne. "I do my best for you Ц and even now you're not satisfied."

"I want to go home."

"Home? For them to know that you're still in London? They all think you've escaped to Greece, and got clean away. That's what I told them."

The man so strangely disguised drew a long breath.

"Ah! if only I could have got away," he murmured wistfully.

"Yes, it would have saved me a lot of bother, wouldn't it?" snarled the other. "No; be patient, and be grateful."

"I am grateful, Wisden Ц very grateful."

"You're not! You're a dissatisfied hound who deserves no pity or consideration. I do my best and shelter you, and all you do in return is to grumble."

"Oh! but you don't know how lonely it is up there. I sit all day alone."

"And sleep your hours away! Look at me, trudging about all day long for next to nothing. True, I have freedom, but there's no charge against me as there is against you."

"No!" cried the man Lionel in his squeaky voice. "But there may be one day, remember! There may be!"

"Don't be a fool!" snapped Boyne. "Get back to your den, and lie low."

"I shan't!"

"What Ц you defy me Ц eh?"

"Yes. I know you Ц who you are!" shouted the mysterious man. "You're not Wisden. Your voice is not his!"

"Infernal idiot! So you've got another attack coming on, have you! Come, get up," for he had sunk into a chair again. Pulling him up, he shook him roughly by the shoulder, saying: "Get up, and come along."

"I won't!" he cried sullenly. "I tell you I won't go up there any more!"

"Very well then, I'll fling you out into the street now, just as you are. You'd cut a fine figure, wouldn't you?"

"I don't care!"

"All right. If you don't care, come along and get out of my house." And he took him again by the shoulder and hustled him out of the room towards the front door.

"What do you mean to do?" asked the mysterious prisoner in a frightened voice.

"Do!" Boyne echoed fiercely. "Why, kick you out! I'm sick of trying to help such an unthankful blackguard."

"I Ц I'm not unthankful," he declared. "I'll go back."

"Ah! I thought you wouldn't relish being put into the hands of the police Ц eh?" laughed Boyne. "Go upstairs."

The hooded man turned towards the stairs with a disconsolate sigh, but without further words. He saw that all argument was useless.

"Come!" whispered Boyne, whose quick ear had caught a sound in the kitchen below. "Mrs. Felmore is back! By gad! hustle up Ц quickly."

And the man painfully climbed back to his secret hiding-place, the door of which Boyne closed just as Mrs. Felmore arrived at the foot of the stairs in search of her master.

"Curse the fellow!" Boyne muttered beneath his breath. "He's growing defiant, and that means trouble for us Ц serious trouble!"

CHAPTER XIV
ON SATURDAY NIGHT

The events of that particular Saturday were of such portent that it is necessary to describe them in some little detail.

When the Man from Upstairs had safely escaped from Mrs. Felmore's observation, and Boyne had expressed regret that her shopping expedition had been fruitless, the honest insurance agent ate the frugal lunch which his housekeeper put before him, and then went out.

An hour later he returned with a large parcel, which he smuggled in away from the deaf old woman, and ten minutes later, pretending to have forgotten, he sent her out to buy some postage stamps.

So she put on her hat in calm obedience, and once more went forth into King Street.

As soon as she had gone, Boyne opened the parcel, which contained a new tin kettle and a quantity of groceries and provisions, and then sprang up the stairs, unlocked the door with his key, and entered the secret abode.

He was there for about three-quarters of an hour. He heard Mrs. Felmore come in, but took no heed. If she knew that he was upstairs, she would no doubt believe that he was looking out some of his insurance papers.

About half-past three Boyne came forth, and, locking the heavy door, descended to his sitting-room with a satisfied smile upon his smug countenance. What had happened in that locked room evidently pleased him. He went to the nearest telephone call-office, and ten minutes later was speaking with his wife in Pont Street.

"You, Lilla?" he asked, recognising her voice. "It's all right! I shall go to Ena's at six, and then come on to you. Have you heard anything?"

"Yes. She's come up from Brighton, and not being able to get a room in any of the big hotels, has gone into a private one at Lancaster Gate. Is all correct?"

"Yes. See you after I've seen Ena," was his reply, and he rang off.

Back again he went to Bridge Place, and at half-past five left for Upper Brook Street. He, however, did not pass the inquisitive hall-porter, but entered by the servants' way, for he was by no means well-dressed.

Inside Ena Pollen's flat, he walked to the drawing-room, where the Red Widow joined him, asking anxiously:

"Well, how goes it, my dear Bernard?"

"All progresses as we would wish. I thought I'd run up here before I go to Lilla's to change. Where is Mrs. Morrison?"

"At Lancaster Gate. At a private hotel I recommended. I urged her to remain in town for a week or ten days, and she's consented."

"Excellent. What's the place like?"

"Oh! quiet and eminently respectable. Mostly rich old fogies from the country go there. I thought it would be better to remain in touch with her, you know."

And the Red Widow laughed grimly.

"I've got the table set ready. Come and see it," she urged. And she took him into the adjoining dining-room, a handsome apartment, with carved oak furniture and several old and valuable paintings upon the walls. Upon the circular polished table the plates were set upon small mats in the latest vogue, while both the silver and glass were ancient. Covers were laid for four, the decorations consisting of only two long-stem glasses of pale-pink carnations. Taste and delicacy were displayed everywhere, especially in the antique Georgian plate, with the genuine Queen Anne "montieth" as a centre-piece.

"Will it do?" she asked. "I laid it myself."

"It is perfect! It will impress her with your sense of the artistic, Ena," he declared. "I hope the meal you will give us will be as refined."

"I hope so," she laughed. "In a sense Ц a certain sense Ц it will be more so."

He laughed at the hidden meaning contained in that remark. Then he glanced around the room, and recollected the great expense which the preliminaries of that single meal had entailed.

"I've asked her for half-past seven," Mrs. Pollen said, "so you'd better go over and dress, and get here a little late. She'll settle down before you come. Then you can both apologise. Of course, we've not met since that evening at the Carlton."

"Right, I quite understand," he said. "Where is she to sit?"

"There Ц with her back to the sideboard."

Boyne nodded approval.

The Red Widow opened the cupboard on the left-hand of the sideboard, where he saw in a row four beautiful liqueur glasses, delicately cut, with square stems. His quick eye examined them, and he took out one. It was exactly the same as the other three except that it had a round stem.

He held it in his fingers for a second, and a sinister smile played about his lips.

"Yes Ц I see!" he remarked. "She likes liqueurs. Most women do."

"Especially Cointreau. They like the subtle flavour of tangerine orange," laughed Ena. "Don't you recollect what she said about it at the Carlton Ц that it is her favourite drink with coffee?"

"Yes. And we, of course, indulge her!"

"Indulge!" echoed the woman. "A nice word, truly!"

Boyne was twisting the liqueur glass he had selected in his fingers.

"I wish you'd get me a cocktail, Ena," he said. "I'm dying for one."

"Then I'll get you one at once. There's none here. I'll go into the kitchen and mix one Ц gin and French vermouth, with a dash of anisette and lemon Ц eh?"

"Exactly. That's what I want. You're a dear," replied the man, and the widow left to prepare it.

A few minutes later she returned with a small glass on a silver tray. He took it, and swallowed the contents at two gulps.

"By Jove! Excellent. Johnnie at the Ritz couldn't make a better, Ena. But you were always famed for your corpse-revivers!"

"Glad you like it. Now get away at once, or you'll have no time."

"Mind the glass!" he said in a serious voice.

"I'll see after it all right, never fear. You do your work and I do mine Ц eh? Now get away, and don't arrive before a quarter to eight or so."

"Yours to obey, Ena," was his response, and he at once slipped out by the servants' entrance into the mews, and, hailing a taxi a few minutes later, drove to Pont Street.

On arrival he at once met his wife, who was anxiously awaiting him in the drawing-room.

"All right, Lilla! Don't worry. Things all go well," he assured her. "I've seen Ena, and we shall have a very delightful dinner. We go to the new revue at the Hippodrome afterwards, and then on to Giro's for supper Ц a very delightful evening."

"And then Ц ?" asked his wife, looking him straight in the face.

"Well Ц and then a little affair of business Ц eh?"

Lilla laughed at the grimace her husband made.

Boyne left her at once, and ascending to his bedroom, shaved, exchanged his clothes for a smart evening suit, and carefully brushed his hair, until, when he descended, he presented the ideal man-about-town whose evening clothes were well worn and who wore his soft-fronted shirt as one accustomed to it every night. The man unused to the claw-hammer coat is always to be noticed in a crowd, just as is the woman who, putting on an evening frock occasionally, hitches it up on the shoulder and is palpably uncomfortable in it.

Bernard Boyne wore his clothes, whether the dusty suit of the Hammersmith insurance agent or the smart evening clothes in which he pursued his nocturnal peregrinations in the West End, with equal grace and ease.

When he rejoined his wife in the pretty drawing-room he presented a very different figure from the man who had sat in that ugly white cloak with the slits for eyes in that dingy, creeper-covered house in Hammersmith.



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