William Le Queux.

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



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The lovers were unaware that Boyne had been making the most careful inquiries concerning both of them, for the instant he realised that he was being watched, he had laid certain diabolical plans by which to triumph.

"It's their lives —or mine!" he whispered to himself, with a strange hard look in his eyes. "I can't afford to be watched by such inquisitive folk. I was a fool not to take Lilla's advice concerning this girl."

He walked across to the sideboard and poured himself out a liqueur-glass full of brandy, which he tossed off at a single gulp.

"I'll test her and see what happens," he said aloud, with a chuckle. Then, slipping on his shoes and going to the front door, he opened it, and, having banged it, walked heavily back along the passage to the room.

The noise awakened Marigold, who, all unconscious that Boyne had seen her there, instantly jumped up and listened.

She heard footsteps on the stairs and saw a passing light beneath her door.

She heard him ascend the next flight of stairs towards the locked room, and then carefully opening her door, peered out after him.

Suddenly he turned and descended, as though he had forgotten something, but his quick eye, as he flashed his lamp upon her door, detected that it was noiselessly closing.

In pretence of ignorance he passed down to his own room, and entering it, closed the door heavily.

"Yes," he whispered to himself. "Ah! I was not mistaken! The girl is here in my house to spy upon me! She's dangerous – just as dangerous as the man. And in my game I allow no enemies to confront me!"

Then, laughing grimly, he clenched his bony fists and set his teeth.

Afterwards he retired to bed, leaving the girl listening attentively to noises he purposely made.

CHAPTER XVI
BAITING THE TRAP

Next day Boyne remained in the house until Marigold had left to go to the City – for she was anxious to report the result of her vigil to her lover and then, instead of going out upon his daily collection of insurance premiums, he went to Pont Street.

He arrived at the fine red-brick house about eleven, opening the door with his latchkey. He found his wife in her bedroom, and closing the door, he exclaimed in an unusually excited voice:

"Lilla! there's trouble brewing —very serious trouble!"

"In what direction?" gasped the handsome woman, starting from the long mirror before which she was arranging her blouse.

"That girl Marigold – the old woman Felmore's niece – is suspicious, and she has established herself in my house in order to watch me!"

"Why is she suspicious?"

"I don't know. That's the mystery of it. How much she knows I can't tell."

"One thing is plain," said the woman. "If we are to save ourselves, her lips must be closed. Surely that will be easy – just a nice box of chocolates, tied with ribbon, or something like that – eh? We did it before with little Louise, at Cheltenham."

"Yes – but I don't like doing it.

She's really an awfully nice girl, and I haven't the heart to give her a 'dose.'"

"She's watching you, you say! Therefore she's a danger to us all. Didn't I warn you about her weeks ago? If you don't want to court trouble, just give her a box of those beautiful expensive sweets, and then good-bye to all our worries."

Boyne made no answer.

His wife saw his hesitation, and went on:

"It was a rotten trick at Cheltenham, I admit, but it had to be done – just as it must be done in this case. We surely can't afford to take any risks, my dear Bernie! What a good job that you've found out that she suspects – eh?" she remarked. "So she must fade out – and very quickly, too. It's up to you to do the necessary!"

"But the man – this clerk in Mincing Lane – Gerald Durrant. He's a most pertinacious person, it seems. We have, I think, more to fear from him than from the girl," Boyne said.

"Didn't I express doubt a week or so ago, but you assured me that it was all right?" retorted the handsome woman. "Well – what are you going to do?"

"Do! Why, there's only one way – put an end to their inquisitiveness," he replied.

"Do be careful."

Oh, I will be – never fear. But I shall want your assistance, Lilla, and perhaps Ena's too. Neither the man nor the girl is acquainted with either of you, which is one point in our favour."

"Have you thought out any plan?" she asked anxiously.

"I've not completed it yet," he answered.

"There must be no failure, remember," said his wife, betraying considerable anxiety. "What could have aroused the suspicions of this accursed girl, I wonder?"

"Ah! I can't tell. I'm always most careful. But I have confirmed my suspicion that while the girl is in the house the fellow watches outside. He followed me last night, and I led him a pretty good chase up to Hampstead, where I called to see Ted Lyons."

"Ted might be useful – eh?" she exclaimed quickly.

"No. We must keep this affair to ourselves. It's far too dangerous."

"Well, Ena and I will help you. But something ought surely to be done as soon as possible!"

"I quite agree, Lilla. But the question is how shall we act for the best?"

"It's easy to deal with the girl – especially as she's living in your house for a week – but how shall we tackle the man?" she asked.

"That's the difficulty. I don't want anything to happen while she's in my house," was his reply. "I allowed her to stay because I wanted to satisfy myself that she was really spying. Now I've confirmed my suspicions, and we must act."

"Well, at any rate, it's a good thing that we know the truth," the woman answered. "You must have blundered in some way or other, so it is up to you to wriggle out of a very awkward situation."

"It is awkward, I admit," he said, gazing blankly out of the window. "If they got to know the true secret of that upstairs room, it would mean that we should at once be in Queer Street, in more senses than one – shouldn't we?"

"They must not know!" said the woman in a hard, fierce tone. "You will know how to deal with them, Bernard. People who have tried to pry into our private affairs before have, all of them, bitterly regretted it – haven't they?"

Boyne grunted, but made no reply.

"Will you tell Ena?" she asked.

"Not yet. It may only frighten her unduly. When I want her help I'll see her – perhaps to-morrow," was his reply.

"I suppose we ought to have news from Lancaster Gate very soon," she said. "Mrs. Morrison went to tea with Ena yesterday. To-day she has gone back to Brighton, but is due here again to-morrow."

"Yes, we ought to hear of some development soon," he said with a grim smile. "That affair is going all right. It's this girl and her man who are so confoundedly dangerous to our plans."

"You had similar trouble with Aitken a year ago, and you found an easy way out of it, Bernard. No doubt you'll soon think of some means by which an end can be put to their infernal inquisitiveness."

"I have a call to make," he said, rising from his chair suddenly. "I'll be back again this afternoon. I'm going into the City."

And he went out.

At lunch time Marigold met her lover, and it was arranged that, as he would be at the office late that evening, he should not resume his watch until the following evening, neither of them, of course, suspecting that Boyne knew they were keeping him under observation or that he was busy laying a most devilish plan for their undoing.

Gerald Durrant had grown fonder of Marigold than ever, and the pair were now inseparable. He disliked the idea of the girl living in that house of mystery, but she told him that she was in no way afraid, and that she was determined to solve the curious motive of Boyne's double life.

When, at six o'clock, she returned she sat down to tea with her aunt, and later, while she was laying Mr. Boyne's table, he came in, greeting her cheerily, as was his wont.

His attitude towards her was distinctly friendly, for he gave no outward sign of suspicion.

The evening passed uneventfully, for Boyne went out about eight o'clock, and he did not return until long after the old woman and her niece were in bed.

Marigold listened, but only heard him go up to his bedroom and close the door. After that there was no other sound.

Boyne spent part of the following day with Lilla at Pont Street, where he held a long and secret consultation with her, after which he took a taxi to Upper Brook Street and sat with Ena for half an hour, explaining what he had discovered concerning the unwelcome attention which young Durrant and the girl was paying to him.

The Red Widow at once became greatly perturbed.

"But how much can they know?" she gasped, leaning forward in her chair, pale and agitated.

"Very little."

"They know nothing of your upstairs friend – eh?"

"No. But they may suspect."

"Then their suspicion must be at once removed, my dear Bernie!" said the woman, in a decisive voice. "We are, I see, confronted with a very grave peril."

"I agree. Lionel will be wondering why I've not been up to see him since Sunday. I shall go up this afternoon, before the girl comes back from the bank. I've got a lot of stuff to take up to him. He's got no kettle, poor chap!"

"Ah! What a life he must lead," said the woman.

"It is his own fault. He was too curious – and he got the worst of it, as they all do!"

"But he was quite harmless. This fellow Durrant is our enemy."

"And he must be treated as such. I've found out a lot about his movements," said Boyne.

"You quickly find out about people, Bernie. You're really wonderful."

"Not very wonderful, Ena," he laughed. "I simply went a few days ago to Chalmers, the private inquiry agent in Regent Street who has done work for me often. I told him I had lent young Durrant money, and wanted to know something of his habits and of his friends. This morning I had a long confidential report about him. He lives out at Ealing."

"A pity you allowed the girl to stay with her aunt. Why ever did you do so?"

"Well, if she wished to walk into a trap, then it surely wasn't my business to keep her out of it – was it?" he asked, with a sinister smile. "I knew the reason why she had so suddenly been deprived of her room at Wimbledon Park, and allowed her to think that I was a fool."

"She'll no doubt know different ere long," laughed the Red Widow.

Then, opening the door, Boyne satisfied himself that there was no servant in the passage, and returning to her, he began to speak rapidly in a low, tense voice.

"What?" she asked breathlessly, when he had finished. "To-night?"

"Yes, to-night – why not?" he asked. "Wear one of your smartest black dresses. Come round and see Lilla. Then you and she can arrange things."

"But, Bernard! It's a most desperate game!"

"Not more so than any other," he laughed. "A dangerous situation always calls for drastic measures."

"But will the trap be sufficiently well-baited?"

"I'll see to that – never fear! Just act as I tell you and to-morrow we shan't have much to fear from at least one of this inquisitive pair!"

For a few minutes she seemed lost in thought.

"Ah! I see you are hesitating, Ena!" he laughed again.

"I am. It's a terrible plot!"

"Bah! Fancy you saying so – you! who have assisted to bring off so many little affairs that have brought us big money. Surely you're not growing squeamish now, at a moment when we are all in distinct peril?"

"No," she answered with an effort, for it was evident that the plan which he had placed before her had held her horrified. "No, I – I'm not – not at all squeamish, but – well – I'm wondering if we couldn't find some other way out of it."

"None. We're in danger, and we must take precautions to defend ourselves – at once – to-night!"

"Very well," she answered somewhat reluctantly. "I'll go round to Lilla about six."

"When we meet we shall do so as strangers, of course," he said, with a sinister smile. "Look your best – won't you?"

"Very well," she laughed, and five minutes later he sat down at the telephone in the room and spoke to his wife.

"All right, Lilla," he said. "Ena will be with you about six. I've told her exactly what we've arranged. I'm now going back to Hammersmith," and, after hanging up the receiver, he took leave of the Red Widow and went direct to Bridge Place.

Mrs. Felmore was surprised that her master should return so early, for he was at home before five. Marigold had not come in from the office, therefore he sent the deaf old woman out to the post, and, putting on his long white gown, took up to the attic the new tin kettle and some other things. But he did not obtain them from that cupboard in his room. He had purchased duplicates on his way home.

He was not upstairs for more than five minutes – just sufficient to reassure the weird recluse and hand to him the necessities required. Then he came down again, and calmly read the evening paper till his meal was ready.

Marigold did not return before seven, but she left her lover to resume his vigil outside.

At eight o'clock Bernard Boyne went out as usual, and Marigold spent another quiet evening with her aunt, confident that Gerald was keeping a very vigilant eye upon the man of mystery!

Next day at the lunch hour she went eagerly to the little restaurant, but he did not put in an appearance. She wondered why.

On returning to the bank she at once rang up his office, but was informed that he had not been there that day! He had sent his principal a telegram stating that he had been suddenly taken ill, and apologised for his absence. The doctor had said that he could not return for several days.

Making excuse to Mr. Kenyon, the assistant manager, she left the bank at four, and at once went over to Ealing, only to find that his sister had received a telegram late on the previous night, which had been handed in at Charing Cross Post Office and read:

"Don't worry! Am all right. Returning in two or three days. Writing.– GERALD."

Further mystified, she at once went back to Hammersmith, where she found a telegram which had arrived for her at eleven o'clock that morning. It had been dispatched from Knightsbridge, and read:

"Am all right, dear! Do not worry. Have discovered something, but am not returning for a day or two.– GERRY."

"Is it from Mr. Boyne?" asked her aunt as she watched the girl's face.

"No. Why?" she asked.

"Because Mr. Boyne hasn't been home all night," was her aunt's reply. "I can't think what's happened to him! When I went up this morning to wake him, because I thought he had overslept himself, I found that his bed had not been slept in!"

CHAPTER XVII
"NEWS" FROM LANCASTER GATE

Marigold was naturally much puzzled.

What had her lover discovered? What did he know?

By the varying forms of the telegrams she saw that he had excused himself from the office upon a plea of illness, while really he was working in secret to elucidate the mystery of the hooded man of Hammersmith.

The fact that Boyne had been absent that night and had not yet returned, did not arouse her curiosity, for she concluded that Gerry had been following him ever since the previous evening.

She relied upon her lover's cleverness and ingenuity. The changing of his clothes showed her that he was resourceful. She admired him for it.

So she took her tea with her aunt, and afterwards laid Mr. Boyne's table in eager readiness for his return.

He came in and greeted her as cheerily as usual.

"Tell Mrs. Felmore that I expect she's been wondering where I've been all this time. But I went out to Loughton, in Essex, to see a friend last night, and I stayed there. Tell her so, Miss Marigold, will you? And now for my supper! I'm horribly hungry!"

He ate his meal, yet not by any means in the manner of a hungry man. He only toyed with it, for, a matter of fact, he had left Pont Street half an hour before, having taken leave of the Red Widow and his wife, whose faces had borne grim smiles of complete satisfaction.

That night as Marigold lay awake, unable to sleep, she became obsessed by the one idea that she ought to leave the house of mystery and return to Wimbledon Park.

Gerald, by his mysterious message to her, had evidently got upon the track of something, therefore it was useless for her to remain any longer in that strange atmosphere of doubt and fear.

Boyne had retired, and though she remained on the alert until the first streak of dawn shone through the blinds, she heard no movement to arouse her suspicion.

Next day, when she came down into the kitchen, she told her aunt that she was returning home. So, taking her blouse-case, she left before Mr. Boyne came downstairs.

"Marigold has gone to the bank, sir," said Mrs. Felmore when she placed Boyne's coffee and kippers upon the table. "She left word that she thanks you very much for allowing her to stay here, but she couldn't encroach on your kind hospitality any longer."

"Oh!" exclaimed Boyne in surprise. "She's gone – eh?"

"Yes, sir. She went out a quarter of an hour ago. She waited to see if you came down – but she had to go."

Boyne grunted, and remarked something beneath his breath – words that the deaf woman, even with her expert lip-reading eyes, could not understand.

Marigold had slipped safely out of the way. The fact filled him with intense chagrin. What did it portend?

"At least Durrant's activity is at an end!" he growled deeply to himself. "Now we have to deal with this girl. For the present nobody can know of the whereabouts of Gerald Durrant. When they do – I hope the peril will be over!"

And he swallowed his coffee with the gusto and satisfaction of a man who had made a most complete coup, and from whose mind some great weight had been lifted.

An hour later he entered the Hammersmith Post Office and telephoned to the Red Widow.

"Any news, Ena?" he asked as he sat in one of the boxes.

"Yes. Augusta spoke to me half an hour ago. I'm going round to Lancaster Gate at eleven. She's taken ill. A pity, isn't it?"

"Sorry to hear that!" he replied in a grim voice. "I'll see you at Pont Street at seven – eh?"

"Yes. I'll run round," Ena answered. "I've just been through to Lilla. I wonder what can be the matter with poor Augusta? A chill, perhaps – eh? Poor lady! But I hope it isn't serious."

"I hope not. Good-bye for the present."

And then the honest, hard-working collector of insurance premiums of the poor of Hammersmith went forth upon his daily round, trudging from street to street, knocking or ringing at the doors of the insured.

He made a call in Dalling Road, just beyond the railway arch, and then, proceeding up the thoroughfare, consulted his pocket account-book. Close to Chiswick High Road he made a further call, where he signed the book for the weekly premium.

Presently he halted at a small and very poor-looking house in the Devonport Road, a turning off the Goldhawk Road, where he rang at the door. At the windows were curtains blackened by the London smoke, for the whole neighbourhood was one of genteel poverty, but of despair.

An ugly, but cleanly dressed old woman answered, and, seeing him, knit her brows.

"Ah! Come in, Mr. Boyne!" she said, and the collector of premiums entered.

Five minutes later he came out, the old woman following him. He was evidently not himself, for usually his was a kindly nature towards the poor. But that day his manner was rough and uncouth. Something had upset him.

"Well, I'm sorry, Mrs. Pentreath," he said in a loud voice. "But, you see, it isn't in my hands. I'm only a humble servant of the company – an ill-paid servant who gets just a living wage upon the premiums he collects. You've had time to pay, you know, and if you can't pay up this week – well, the policy must lapse. You've been given notice of it for six weeks. The company has been very lenient with you. Other companies wouldn't have been so lenient."

"But my poor Bertha! She's come home from service, and is in bed with consumption. I have to look after her and try to give her the nourishment Doctor James orders. It isn't my fault that I haven't paid you. It really isn't."

"I can't help that," replied Boyne roughly. "Your insurance policy must lapse – that's all.

"And after fifteen years that I've paid regularly each week!" exclaimed the poor woman in dismay.

"Well, it isn't my fault, I tell you. I'm not the company," was his harsh reply.

"And my poor Bertha so ill. It's cruel – it's inhuman, I say!" she shouted in a shrill voice.

Boyne only smiled grimly. He was not the kindly man of other days.

"It probably is so," he replied, turning away from the door. "But it's our insurance business; and business is business, after all!

"Yes!" retorted the poor woman. "You people are robbing the poor – that's what it is! And after fifteen years! Why, I've paid your company more in that time than what they would have paid to bury my Bertha!"

At a small house in the Loftus Road he knocked three times, and a dwarfed, red-eyed girl at last opened the door.

"Poor mother's dead, Mr. Boyne! Didn't you see the blinds?" she asked.

"Dead!" he exclaimed, looking at the little window of the sitting-room. "Get your book."

"I'll go and get it," was the girl's reply. "Mother died late last night. The doctor says it's heart disease."

"All right. Give me the book," he said brutally. "I suppose we'll have to pay. You paid up last week, didn't you?"



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