William Le Queux.

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



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He rang the bell, and, ordering a taxi, lit a cigarette, and awaited it.

Lilla was splendidly dressed in a gown of navy blue and gold brocade, cut very low, with shoes and stockings to match. In her hair was a long osprey which well matched the gorgeous gown, the latest creation of Petticoat Lane – the writer begs pardon of his lady readers for such irreverent mention of Dover Street, Piccadilly, that street in which the latest fashions of feminine frippery have their birth, and to which the mere man sends his cheques in consequence of recurring crazes.

When together in the taxi, Lilla said:

"Now be extremely careful. This Scotch woman is very canny. Remember that! If we made a slip it would land us all in – well, at a very dead end."

"Don't be anxious, Lilla. I never like you when you grow anxious, because anxiety always brings us bad luck. And we don't want that to-night – do we? Eat your dinner and think of nothing – only of the revue at the Hippodrome. Leave Ena and myself to it. Don't bother – or you may arouse suspicion."

Later, when they alighted in Upper Brook Street just before eight o'clock, the uniformed hall-porter touched his cap as they entered and took them up in the lift.

"Oh! my dear Ena," cried Lilla, as the two women met in the drawing-room. "Do forgive me – do! Bernard came in late from the club. It's all his fault! It really is not mine! I waited for him half an hour."

"Yes, Mrs. Pollen," said Boyne penitently, "I take all responsibility upon myself. I had to see a man on business at the club, and the brute was half an hour late. So I had to rush home and dress – and here we are. Do forgive me – won't you?"

Ena Pollen laughed, declaring that she had overlooked the offence, whereupon Mrs. Morrison shook Lilla's hand warmly, and they sank into chairs until two minutes later dinner was announced by the smart maid.

Dinner! Bernard Boyne and Ena Pollen had given dinners before, artistic and perfect meals which would have delighted any gourmet, even though he had tasted the pre-war gastronomical delights of the expensive restaurants of Moscow, Petrograd or Bucharest.

When they sat down, Ena directed Mrs. Morrison to her seat with her back to the sideboard, saying:

"You won't have any draught there, my dear. This room is so full of draughts. I don't know where they come from!"

"I hope you are staying in town a little while, and that we shall see something of you," said Lilla to Mrs. Morrison as they tackled their asparagus soup. "You must not go back to Scotland yet, you know."

"Well," replied the other, a handsome figure in her discreetly d?collet? gown, "Ena has been urging me to remain in London for a few days, but I couldn't get a room anywhere. All the hotels are full up, but I at last got in at a place in Lancaster Gate – quite comfortable, though it's a bit expensive."

"All hotels are terribly dear now, though, after all, hotels are cheaper than one's household expenses," Lilla replied.

"Well, I've taken my room for a week.

I may be in London longer, but I have to visit my sister-in-law at Aviemore on the twentieth of next month, and then I go over to Arran to my niece."

"Stay with us as long as you can, Mrs. Morrison," Boyne urged warmly. "You must dine with us at Pont Street one night next week."

"Thanks! I shall be delighted. I've got appointments with the dressmaker."

"And the dentist, of course," laughed Boyne. "All ladies have appointments with their dentists. It is the best excuse a wife can have for the deception of a too inquisitive husband."

"Not in my case, Mr. Davidson," declared the widow of Carsphairn, with a merry smile. "I have no one to whom I need make excuses. But, as it happens, I am going to a dentist!"

"There you are!" laughed Ena. "He divined it."

The meal went on merrily to its end, after which the maid handed round the black coffee in exquisite little china cups, the spoons having handles shaped like coffee beans. Then she retired.

Ena, glancing at the old chiming clock upon the mantelshelf, suddenly exclaimed:

"Oh! it's getting late! And Evans hasn't put on the liqueurs. I'll get them myself."

And rising she obtained from the sideboard four liqueur glasses, together with bottles of old brandy, Benedictine and Triple-Sec.

"Now, dear, you'll have your favourite Cointreau," she said, addressing Mrs. Morrison, and pouring out a glass of the clear water-like extract of Tangerine oranges.

"No – no thanks!" was the prompt reply. "I really don't want it."

"Oh, but you must!" declared her hostess, pressing her. "I'm going to have one, and so will you, Lilla, I'm sure."

"Oh! yes. I love it," declared the other woman, while Boyne glanced eagerly to satisfy himself that the stem of Mrs. Morrison's glass was round and not square.

"Come, you must have half a glass, dear," declared Ena, and she poured it out disregarding her guest's half-hearted protests.

Then, the others being served, the big silver box of rose-tipped cigarettes was opened, and they took one each.

Bernard Boyne watched the widow from Scotland sipping her small glass with the utmost satisfaction, while the other two women were excited, though they seemed quite cool, engaging her in conversation.

"Do you know," exclaimed Mrs. Morrison, "I grow more fond of this liqueur each time I take it. We can't get it in Scotland, so I order it from London. It is the purest of all the liqueurs, that is my belief."

"It is," declared Boyne, with a meaning look towards Ena. "It is never injurious as so many of these green, red and yellow alcoholic and sugar concoctions are."

"No," replied the wealthy owner of Carsphairn. "I quite agree." And she drained her glass with undisguised satisfaction. "It has a most exquisite flavour, and it does one no harm."

Boyne smiled grimly across to his hostess and suggested that they should be going if they wanted to be there at the opening of the revue.

The quartette sat in a box, and greatly enjoyed the medley of songs and dances until, at the close, they went off to a gay supper at Giro's, which they did not leave till nearly two in the morning.

Just before Boyne dropped his wife from a taxi at the corner of Pont Street, he said:

"Well, Lilla! It all went well, didn't it? No hitch. We ought to have some news from Lancaster Gate about Wednesday or Thursday."

"Good!" replied the woman. "We'll wait in patience. Only I do hope it will turn out as we expect."

"It will – never fear! Good-night."

And she stepped out to walk down the street to her own house, while he continued in the taxi to Hammersmith Broadway, where he also alighted.

Then, as he walked home, he muttered to himself:

"It can't fail this time. On Wednesday next we shall hear how beneficial to the health is that most excellent liqueur."

CHAPTER XV
CARRIES THE MYSTERY FARTHER

On Monday, according to a previous arrangement, both Gerald and Marigold obtained leave of absence for the afternoon from their respective principals, and after lunching together as usual, went on the top of an omnibus to Kew, where they walked for an hour in the celebrated gardens. Then they went to Hammersmith to take tea with Mrs. Felmore. The deaf old woman welcomed them warmly, and they sat together in the kitchen, though Gerald could not talk with Marigold's aunt.

The girl, who could speak with her aunt with ease, put to her several questions concerning Mr. Boyne's movements, but learned nothing unusual. She feared to tell the old woman of that uncanny disguise which he adopted when he visited that locked room upstairs, or of that weird, but certainly human cry which she had heard above.

Personally, Gerald suspected the cry to be the result of her vivid imagination. The theory that somebody was imprisoned in that upstairs room was fantastic, but highly improbable, therefore he had dismissed it. Yet presently the old woman made one remark which struck him as curious. In the course of conversation Mrs. Felmore said:

"Poor Mr. Boyne! He does all the good in the world that he can. Only yesterday I found hidden in one of the cupboards in his bedroom a whole lot of tinned stuff – tongues, fruit, jam, biscuits – a host of things that he's got up there on the quiet. I asked him what he was hoarding them up for, and he said that he was sending a big parcel of groceries to a poor widow he knew at Notting Hill Gate."

"Curious to have a store of tinned stuff in his bedroom!" remarked Gerald, at once recollecting the suggestion that somebody might be in hiding upstairs.

"Yes, sir," replied the old woman. "But Mr. Boyne is very eccentric sometimes – very eccentric!"

"In what way?" he asked eagerly.

"Oh! he gets up in the middle of the night and goes up and down stairs – I often see the light under my bedroom door."

Marigold and her lover exchanged glances.

"I wonder what he does?" asked the girl.

"Ah! That I can't say," was the old housekeeper's response. "I asked him one day not long ago, and he simply told me he had woke up, and as he couldn't go to sleep again, he went down to do his accounts."

"Well, this store of food shows him to be of a philanthropic turn of mind," remarked Gerald, with a smile. And then, disregarding the fact that Boyne might return at any moment, he succeeded in getting Mrs. Felmore's permission to slip upstairs and view the collection of preserved foods which was going to the poor widow.

Marigold quickly found it stored in the bottom of a cupboard, covered by an old overcoat and some worn-out shirts, which had apparently been flung in at haphazard.

Gerald's quick glance saw something which further aroused his curiosity – a small brand-new tin tea-kettle and a little enamelled basin. With them was a new roll of absorbent cotton-wool and a quart bottle of cheap port wine, which from its label had been purchased of a local grocer.

"Funny that he should send her a tea-kettle and basin!" remarked Durrant, as he handled them. "And look! What's this?" And he took out a small wooden box about three inches square, such as is used by jewellers to send watches by post. He opened it and within, carefully packed in cotton wool, was a small lens surrounded by a threaded brass ring evidently a portion of some optical instrument.

"Part of a telescope!" the girl exclaimed. "Surely a widow would not require that – however poor she might be!"

"Yes, dear," said her lover, holding the box in his hand and reflecting. "This is a curious hoard, and I am wondering if it is intended for the unknown person who is living in seclusion above."

"Well, Mr. Boyne's explanation to auntie is quite clever, if what you suggest is the solution of the mystery."

"But is not Boyne always clever?" he asked. "That he is leading a double life we have already established. It is now for us to solve the problem of the reason of this locked room upstairs."

"Then you think this has been bought in order to feed somebody who is living up above in silence and seclusion?" she asked.

"It seems like it. But if we watch carefully and see in which direction it disappears, whether inside this house or outside, then we shall begin to penetrate the mystery."

"But how shall we do it?"

"This requires very careful consideration, dear," was his reply. "My own feeling is that you should by some means or other endeavour to spend the next few days here with your aunt, so that you can keep daily watch upon this strange collection of provisions. But we mustn't remain here, for Boyne may return at any moment."

So they descended the stairs to the kitchen, and hardly had they reached it when the heavy tread of the man of mystery was heard in the hall above.

While Mrs. Felmore was upstairs interviewing her employer as to what he required for tea, the lovers held hurried consultation.

When the old woman returned, Gerald rose and motioned to her that he intended to go as perhaps Mr. Boyne would not like to discover him there. He placed his finger upon his lips, shook hands with the deaf housekeeper, and stole out and up the area steps, keeping well out of sight of Boyne's window.

"Mr. Durrant was in a hurry, eh?" asked the old woman.

"Yes, auntie. He was afraid that Mr. Boyne might not like him calling here, so he's gone. But I'm here, and – well, to tell you the truth, auntie, I don't exactly know what to do!"

"Do – why?" asked the old woman, her eyes starting as was her habit when surprised.

"I'm at a loose end, auntie. They want my room over at Wimbledon – but only for a week. Hetty and Jack have come home from their music-hall engagement in Paris, and they've asked me to give up my room for a week. So I've no place to sleep. I've been wondering if Mr. Boyne would mind me coming here. Do you think he'd object?"

"No, I'm sure he wouldn't mind, dear!" she declared. "I'll ask him now – when I go up. He's often inquiring after you."

So when she took up her master's tea a quarter of an hour later, she said:

"Marigold's downstairs, sir. She's in a bit of trouble, sir."

"Trouble! Why?" asked Boyne sharply. "What's the matter? Has she left the bank?"

"Oh, no, sir. It's only because she's turned out of her room at Wimbledon for a week for her brother-in-law and his wife, so she wants to come here and stay with me. Would you have any objection?"

"Of course not, Mrs. Felmore. Tell her to come up and see me now."

Then, when the old woman had gone, his genial attitude instantly changed.

"So the girl wants to come here – does she? Yes, she shall come. Oh, yes!" he growled grimly. "She and that fellow are playing a very pretty game. But I shall win, never fear!"

A moment later Marigold entered the room, saying:

"It's awfully good of you, Mr. Boyne, to put me up again! I fear I'm a terrible nuisance, but I was in such a difficulty that I came to auntie, and asked her if she knew of anyone who could give me a room. She then said that she thought you might allow me to stay here."

"My dear Miss Marigold," he said quite genially, "you are welcome to stay with your aunt. I've told you so over and over again, haven't I? How are you getting on at the bank?"

"Oh, quite well, thanks! It is rather monotonous – figures always – but still it's better than at that motor dealer's where I was before. People who deal in motor cars have no conscience, and are, I believe, the biggest liars on earth."

Boyne laughed. He had an appreciation for the smart young lady clerk, whose quick wit and ready repartee always appealed to him. But two days before he had made a discovery which had aroused his suspicions.

It was, however, arranged that Marigold should occupy the same room which she had had when taken suddenly ill a short time before, and Boyne added:

"Just do as you like, my girl. I have a great regard for your aunt, as you know, and you are quite welcome here, I assure you."

The girl, believing that he was unsuspicious, thanked him and, leaving the room, descended to the kitchen, where she told her aunt all that had transpired.

Personally she liked Mr. Boyne. It was only the discovery of that weird disguise of his that had aroused her curiosity, which, indeed, was but natural.

She left the house half an hour later and travelled to Wimbledon Park, returning with her leather blouse case containing a few necessaries.

Eight o'clock had struck ere she arrived at Bridge Place. At the corner of the street Gerald confronted her. He had kept watchful vigil upon the house to see whether Boyne had brought out any parcel for the poor widow. But the man of mystery had not come forth.

She told her lover with enthusiasm how Boyne had invited her to stay there, and promised to keep a watchful eye upon things.

"Excellent, dear," Gerald declared. "You go in, and I'll still remain here, and follow him if he goes out to spend the evening."

"Be careful that he doesn't notice you," she urged. "He has awfully quick eyesight."

"I know that. He very nearly spotted me the other day. In fact, I was afraid that he had."

"I see you've got a cap on," she laughed. "Where is your hat?"

"I've left it in a shop in the Broadway to be renovated and ironed, and I bought this cap to wear meanwhile. Does it make any difference?"

"Certainly it does. And you've got a new jacket, too."

"The same. I bought it at a reach-me-down shop in King Street an hour ago, and left my own there. Does it fit?"

"Not very well around the collar, but nobody would really notice it," she declared.

Gerald Durrant was both shrewd and determined. When he set his mind upon a thing, he carried it through at all costs. He intended to penetrate the veil of mystery which enveloped this good go-to-meeting collector of insurance premiums.

"Well," he said at last. "Be watchful, and be careful, dear, that you don't arouse his suspicion. He's a mystery, and all men of his calibre are ultra-suspicious, and masters in the art of concealing their own feelings."

"Don't fear, Gerry," she laughed. "I shall be as clever as he is. You do your watching outside, and I'll do mine within. I shall probably telegraph to Mr. Kenyon to-morrow and make excuse that I'm ill. Then I shall have a day in the house to examine things a little more closely."

"That's a good idea! Watch those things in his bedroom – that tea-kettle and the other things. Find out when they go – and where," were his parting injunctions.

Five minutes later Marigold went down the area steps into the kitchen, where her aunt was cooking Mr. Boyne's succulent steak.

"He says he's very hungry to-day – hasn't had any lunch, so I went out and got him this!" exclaimed the old woman. "If he eats it all, then he ought to do well, eh?" she remarked, in her somewhat high-pitched and rasping voice.

"Yes. I suppose he'll go out afterwards," said Marigold.

"He said he'd got to go out at nine – to a meeting somewhere," was her aunt's reply. Therefore her niece took from her bag a postcard, scribbled something upon it, and in pretence of going to the post she went out to Gerald and told him what she had learned.

This afforded Durrant time to go along to the "Clarendon" for dinner and a rest before resuming his patient observations.

On her return, Marigold put on an apron and helped her aunt. Indeed, she carried up the tray into Mr. Boyne's room.

"Ah! I see I've got a new parlour-maid, eh?" he laughed merrily. "And an unusually smart one, too!"

Marigold laughed, and set the table, saying:

"Well, I thought I'd just give auntie a hand, Mr. Boyne. Half an hour ago she complained that her leg hurt, because of the stairs, so I thought I'd help her."

"Very good of you," he said, lounging in the frayed old arm-chair in his shirt-sleeves, a different figure indeed from that he so often presented at night in the West End. There, in the smart restaurants and in theatres, he wore his evening suit and nodded acquaintance with many well-known people, who little suspected his obscure abode.

Marigold waited upon him as though she were a waitress instead of a ledger clerk, but he was reading the evening paper as he ate his meal, and spoke but little more.

"Yes, you're a pretty miss, you are!" he growled to himself after she had left the room. "If you don't mind you'll be very sorry that you entered my house."

At a quarter to nine, having washed and changed into a rather seedy suit of blue serge, he went out. Marigold heard him bang the door, and knew that Gerald was on the alert outside.

The evening passed quietly until at ten Mrs. Felmore went to bed, and her niece also retired. She bade her aunt good-night, went into the spare room and closed the door.

She shook out her thin summer dressing-gown, and placed it upon the rail of the narrow bed. Then she reopened the door and stood listening on the stairs, her ears strained to catch any noise from the locked room on the next landing of the frowsy old house.

No sound reached her ears, save the noise her aunt made moving about in her room. Downstairs the cheap old clock in Boyne's sitting-room ticked loudly and suddenly struck the half-hour. Beyond that all was silent.

Marigold, after a long vigil, at last turned off the gas and, throwing herself on the bed, dressed as she was, soon fell asleep.

Meanwhile Boyne re-entered the house noiselessly and, taking off his shoes, crept in silence up the stairs to her door. He listened, and could hear by her deep, regular breathing that she was asleep.

Slowly he turned the handle of the door – which he had purposely oiled before going out – and, flashing a pocket-torch to the ceiling, saw her lying there, still dressed!

Without a sound he withdrew and crept back down the stairs.

"I thought so, young lady!" he muttered to himself, when he was back in his sitting-room. "You don't know much – neither does your young man! But I must take steps for my own protection, that I can see!"

He stood with his back to the fireplace, his eyes staring at the sideboard in front of him for some moments. Nibby was scuttling about in the cupboard, so he let him out and the little rodent sniffed his hand.

"I wonder what makes the girl so inquisitive?" he thought. "Surely the old woman knows nothing! If she does, then she would, of course, confide in her niece, who, in turn, would tell this young fellow Durrant."



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