William Le Queux.

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



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CHAPTER XIX
WHAT HAPPENED TO GERALD

The days passed, and Marigold, hearing nothing further from Gerald, called again at Mincing Lane, and there learned that they had not heard again from young Durrant.

A clerk had been sent over to Ealing to inquire about him, but had returned with the information that, instead of being ill, he had not been seen by his sister.

"The firm at once suspected something wrong with the books," said the female clerk of whom she made the inquiry, "but Mr. Durrant was such an honest, straightforward young man that we all ridiculed the idea."

"Have the books been examined?" asked Marigold breathlessly.

"Oh, yes; and nothing has been found wrong."

The girl drew a sigh of relief.

She then showed the clerk the telegram she had received from Birmingham, and she, in turn, promised to show it to the principal when he came in.

Marigold Ramsay walked down Mincing Lane to Fenchurch Street in gloom and despair. She returned to the bank and sat at her books, unable to work, unable to do anything, save to wonder why Gerald had so suddenly left her. Yet he had bidden her not to worry over him and had promised to return.

That evening she went over to Hammersmith, and her aunt, noticing how pale and worried she looked, inquired the reason, asking:

"Have you heard yet from Mr. Durrant?"

"No, auntie. Unfortunately, I haven't, but I'm expecting to hear every day."

"Funny he went away like that, wasn't it?" the deaf old woman remarked, though inwardly she suspected that there had been some quarrel between them, and that he had left her in consequence.

"Yes," replied the girl faintly. Then she asked after Mr. Boyne.

"Oh! he's been away four days now. He said he was going into Wales on some insurance business, and would be away a week or perhaps ten days."

"Unusual for him to go away, isn't it?" Marigold remarked.

"Yes. He's never been away for more than a week together in all the time I've been with him."

The girl left Hammersmith early, and, returning to Wimbledon Park, sat at her window and wept for a long time before retiring to rest. To her the world was empty and hopeless without Gerald.

What had she done, she wondered, that he should have left her in that fashion. That he was following Boyne was a mere excuse, she felt sure. It irritated her to think that he should try to deceive her. What was he doing in Birmingham? If there were reasons why he did not wish to return to London, then why did he not give her his address, and then she could easily have run up to see him.

The more she thought it over the more mystified did she become.

The mystery was increased three days later when, on returning from the City, she found a telegram on the table in the narrow hall.

Her heart leapt as she tore it open.

It had been sent from Paris, of all places, and read:

"Sorry could not write, dear.

Do not worry. Shall be back soon. Have wired to the office. Love.– GERALD."

"Love! – Gerald!" she repeated aloud to herself. "Oh! why does he not give me an address, so that I can write to him? It's cruel – very cruel of him to keep me in suspense like this!" she cried in a frenzy of despair.

She ate sparingly in the little dining-room of the jerry-built villa – for nowhere is the jerry-builder more in evidence than in Wimbledon Park, with his white-painted gables and his white-painted balconies to his six-roomed houses. But let us not misunderstand. It is best for the workers – the brains and backbone of England – to live in smiling houses, even though jerry-built, than in many of those grey, rain-sodden houses of the Midlands and the North, where the "knocker-up" pursues his calling each dawn and the factory hooter sounds all too early.

Personally, the writer here declares that he has no love for the capitalist. The latter has too often, ever since the Early Victorian days, been either a swindler or an aristocrat of bad intentions, and the jerry-builder was the natural outcome of his parting with his estate.

Poor Marigold! She could go no farther in the maze of doubt and uncertainty.

A dozen times that night she re-read the mysterious, but unconvincing, message. She was a girl of high intelligence, or she would not have been employed by the bank. The whole affair puzzled her, as it would indeed have puzzled anybody.

Next day after her luncheon she went round again to Mincing Lane, and made inquiry regarding the missing man.

The same girl told her that the principal had received a mysterious wire from Paris.

"I saw the telegram," she said. "It was from Paris, and was quite abrupt, saying that he would probably return in a week or so."

"But what does it all mean?" asked the distressed girl.

"I really don't know," replied the other girl. "Mr. Durrant's gone away, and that's all!"

That night Marigold went over to Ealing, and to Gerald's sister she showed the telegram. It puzzled her sorely.

"Whatever can Gerald be doing in Paris?" she exclaimed. "Why could he not write to us, eh?"

"I don't know," was the reply of the unnerved girl. "I think he ought to send us some address."

"But he may do so later," replied his sister. "Gerald is a man of business. He would realise how troubled we all are."

"He seems to have faded out of existence," said the girl, seated in the front parlour of the neat little villa of the neat suburban road.

"Yes," said his sister. "He certainly does. I await a letter each morning, but none comes."

"But what can he be doing in Paris?" queried Marigold. "Without a doubt, he has lost the confidence of his firm. He pretended to be lying ill here, and they have found out that he isn't ill at all!"

"Yes. The other day a middle-aged man came to see him, but I was forced to admit that he wasn't here – that he was missing," replied Gerald's sister.

Marigold went home utterly dispirited. What could she do? It was useless to go to the police and raise a hue and cry regarding a man who, from time to time, telegraphed to his employers and to her that he was on the point of returning. So she was compelled to wait.

Gerald Durrant had disappeared. He had sent her messages, it is true, messages of comfort, yet when she argued within herself, she saw that he ought, at least, to have given her some address to which she could reply by letter or by telegram.

True, Boyne was absent. But he had only been absent for a few days, while her lover had been missing very much longer.

Four more days of blank despair crept slowly by. Seated beneath her green-shaded light at the bank, with her great ledger before her, Marigold reckoned up the columns of figures mechanically, and handed them to be checked. They were accounts of all classes of merchants, mostly of profiteers, firms who had made fortunes out of the valour and blood of the gallant fellows who had given their lives for Britain. She felt so unhappy without her lover. Gerald, who had directed those investigations concerning the hooded man who was her aunt's employer, had disappeared with startling suddenness, yet he had assured her that he was following some mysterious clue.

The latter she had proved, by reason of the knowledge of Boyne's movements, to be non-existent. Was her lover deceiving her? That suspicion caused her the greatest irritation and annoyance.

That evening she sauntered along Pont Street, and looked up at the red-brick house which Boyne had entered on that well-remembered night. But the place was in complete darkness, save for a light in the servants' quarters.

Then again she went to Bridge Place, and learned from the old deaf woman that her master had not yet returned.

"He's having a very nice long holiday," said Mrs. Felmore. "And he deserves it, too – a-tramping about Hammersmith all day and in all weathers, as he does."

Three weeks went past, but no further word had come from Gerald, either to his principal, his sister, or to his well-beloved.

Gerald Durrant had, truth to tell, met with some strange and startling adventures since the night of his disappearance.

In the darkness on that well-remembered night he was walking along the Kensington Road towards Knightsbridge, following Boyne at a respectful distance, and keeping a wary eye upon him, without arousing any suspicion as he naturally believed.

While passing the railings of Kensington Gardens, close to Queen's Gate, he saw a female figure lying upon the pavement with a lady bending over her concernedly.

Hastening up, he found both ladies to be well dressed, and inquired what had occurred.

"Oh, dear!" cried the elder lady, in great distress. "My sister has just slipped down on a piece of banana peel, I think, and she's broken her ankle. She can't move, and she doesn't speak. She has fainted. I – I wonder, sir, if you would be so kind as to call me a taxi."

"Certainly I will," replied Gerald, with his usual gallantry. "If you'll stay here, I'll go back to the rank. I passed it a few minutes ago, and there was a taxi there."

So he dashed back, got into the cab, and was soon on the spot where the lady, who had recovered consciousness, was standing on one foot, unable to put the other to the ground.

"It's so extremely kind of you," said the elder lady, while the injured one expressed faint thanks. Then, assisted by the driver, the lady was seated in the conveyance.

"I really don't know how I shall get her up the stairs," exclaimed the elder woman. "We live in a flat up at Hampstead and we have no hall-porter."

Gerald reflected a second, and suddenly recollected that Boyne was now out of sight, so that by that unfortunate accident he was prevented from further following him.

"I shall be very pleased to accompany you, and give you what assistance I can," he said. "May I get in?"

"Certainly. It's too kind of you," the injured lady declared. "I fear we are encroaching upon your time, but the taxi can bring you back to wherever you want to go."

So Gerald got in, while the elder lady gave the man an address at Hampstead – some mansions, the name of which he did not catch, for, at the moment, he was in conversation with her sister. All he recollected were the words:

"It's close to Hampstead tube station."

Next moment they drove off, whereupon the elder lady introduced herself as Mrs. Evans, and her sister she said was Miss Mayne.

"We live together," she went on. "My husband was unfortunately killed on the Somme, so we are companions for each other."

Meanwhile Miss Mayne was evidently suffering extreme pain.

"I'm so sorry, dear," her sister exclaimed. "But as soon as we get home, I'll ring up for Doctor Trueman. He'll no doubt soon set it right."

"Can you move your ankle, Miss Mayne?" asked Gerald, who had, in turn, already given the two ladies his name.

"Unfortunately, no – not in the least. To try to move it causes me excruciating pain. I really don't know what I shall do."

"Oh! Surgeons nowadays are wonderful," exclaimed Gerald cheerily. "Probably it is only a simple sprain. At least, let us hope so."

So completely engaged in conversation was Gerald, that he did not notice along what thoroughfare they were travelling. Indeed, the driver had taken an intricate route behind Regent's Park, a district quite unknown to the young man.

From the ladies he learned that they had been dining with a lady living in Phillimore Place, and were on their way back to Knightsbridge tube station on their return home when the accident happened. That they were refined, well-bred ladies was unquestionable, therefore he was genuinely concerned.

At last the taxi stopped before the entrance to a large block of inartistic-looking flats, and with difficulty Miss Mayne descended. Then, assisted by the driver and Gerald, she, with great difficulty, ascended to the first floor, while her sister opened the door with her latch-key, and switched on the light.

Within it was a cosy, well-furnished abode, just as one would expect to be the home of two refined women of good position.

Mrs. Evans paid the driver, giving him half a sovereign over his fare, and saying:

"I shall want you to take this gentleman back to the West End presently. So wait!"

"Very well, mum," replied the man, pleased with his tip, who then retired.

Then, turning to Gerald, she said:

"You'll stay a few minutes, won't you? I'll telephone to the doctor." This she did, the telephone being out in the hall, and while he sat with Miss Mayne in the small drawing-room, he heard her sister in conversation with Doctor Trueman.

"He'll be here in about a quarter of an hour!" she exclaimed, as she re-entered the room. "How fortunate, dear, to find him in!"

"Yes. I – Oh! I do hope he'll give me something to dull this terrible pain'" replied the other.

"No doubt he will," said Gerald encouragingly. "It is too bad of people to throw fruit peel about the pavements. I've had more than one narrow escape from falling myself."

"It's positively criminal!" declared Mrs. Evans, with warmth. "Of course you'll stop now, and see what he says. Mr. Durrant," she went on, "I'm only too happy to have been of service to you."

"You'll have something?" she suggested. "I'm just going to get my sister a little brandy, and I'll get you a whisky and soda."

"No, thanks – all the same," Gerald replied. "The fact is I never drink whisky."

"Then a glass of port wine," she laughed gaily. "You won't refuse that – have it, to please me, won't you?"

He tried to protest, but she overruled him, and in the end he was forced to accept the glass of wine which a few minutes later she brought him upon a small silver salver, together with her sister's liqueur glass of old brandy.

She took nothing herself, but stood chatting as Durrant and her sister sipped their glasses.

"That's some very old port that was lately given to me by a friend," she explained. "Being a woman, I know nothing of wines, but we had a man dining here with us the other night who pronounced it first-class."

"Yes," Gerald said. "It is excellent, though I, too, have no knowledge of wines, which I always think is generally pretended save in the case of men with acute palates who are in the import trade. The man who to-day can sip a glass and tell its vintage is a rara avis," he declared.

Mrs. Evans agreed with him.

She watched him drain his glass with satisfaction, and then urged him to have a second one. But he refused, for, as a matter of fact, he found a strange sensation creeping over him. Though he did not mention it, being too polite, he felt across his eyes a slow, but increasing, blindness. Objects seemed to be receding from his gaze. The muscles of his throat seemed to be contracting, and he felt his cheeks hot and flushed.

He tried to stir himself in his chair, but he seemed paralysed. He could not move!

He endeavoured to speak, to tell the two ladies of his sudden seizure, but his tongue refused to articulate a word.

In his desperate efforts to ask them to call assistance, his hands pawed the air convulsively, and then, of a sudden, he felt himself collapsing, and all became blank.

Meanwhile the two women were watching him intently, and the instant they satisfied themselves that he was unconscious, Miss Mayne – who was really Lilla Braybourne, sat where she was, while Mrs. Evans, who was Ena Pollen, the Red Widow – jumped up from her chair, saying eagerly:

"All's well up till now! I must tell Bernie."

She dashed to the telephone, and, asking for a number, spoke rapidly:

"Lilla speaking," she said. "Bernie. He's here, and he's been taken suddenly ill. You'd better come round at once."

She listened. Then she said:

"Right – you'll get here in a quarter of an hour. He's asleep now!"

Then the pretended invalid and her pseudo-sister, leaving Gerald in the drawing-room, where he had collapsed so suddenly after drinking the glass of "doctored" port, went into the dining-room and mixed themselves a stiff brandy and soda each.

Afterwards the Red Widow, descending to where the taxi was waiting, gave the man another ten shillings, and said:

"The gentleman has changed his mind. He's staying here."

"All right, mum," the man replied. "Thank you very much. Good-night."

Starting his engine, he drove away well satisfied.

CHAPTER XX
THE ROOM OF EVIL

A quarter of an hour later Bernard Boyne stood in the room where Gerald Durrant lay back in the arm-chair, pale as death, quite unconscious.

"So you tried to get the better of me, my young friend, did you?" he laughed, as he stood before the inanimate figure. "But you dropped into the trap just as I intended. I could easily put you out of the way, you infernal young prig, but it might be dangerous."

"No, no!" cried Ena anxiously. "The body would be found. And Scotland Yard may possibly find traces of us. No! Carry out your plan – telegrams, a motor-car journey, a pretty story – and good-bye-ee!"

"Yes. But this fellow, and the girl who is in love with him, are distinct dangers, remember!"

"True. But it was the girl who aroused his suspicions. Send her underground, if you like, and as soon as you like, for none of us have any love for her, have we?"

"Ena," he said, his manner suddenly changing; "an idea regarding the girl, Marigold, has just occurred to me – one that cannot be investigated, and nothing can be brought up against us. Leave her to me!"

"Oh, we will, Bernie! But recollect, she must have a dose – and go out. That's the only way to put the tombstone over this affair. We don't want any unwelcome inquiries, or any resistance by the insurance company."

"Don't fret, my dear Ena. We shan't have any real trouble, I assure you. We are now dealing with it in advance." Then, turning to his wife, he exclaimed: "Those necessary telegrams? You have them all ready. Get busy, and send them. I've arranged with Jimmy, in Birmingham, and Hylda, in Paris, to send others at certain times."

"Great Scott, Bernie! Your brain is wonderful!" exclaimed Ena in admiration. "How can you think out all these details in such a short space of time?"

"When one is in danger one takes due precaution – and at once. I always do so," he laughed. "This fellow and his girl have tried to spy upon us – and we have to deal with them as they would deal with us. If they discovered anything they would at once tell the police, and very soon our game would be up. Hence, we have to put matters square at the least possible risk to ourselves," he added.

He took up the glass from which Gerald had drunk the excellent port, and carried it into the small kitchen, where he carefully washed it. Afterwards Ena handed him a small phial which he also carefully washed, and then half filled it with something he took from his pocket. The bottle was full of that cheap, but pungent, perfume – oil of verbena. When he had half filled the small bottle, he corked it and placed it in a cupboard in the kitchen, thus removing all trace of the deleterious liquid which the little phial had previously contained.

Lilla had gone out, but half an hour later she drove up to the door in a small open car. The manner in which she pulled up showed her to be a good driver.

The inhabitants of the whole block of flats – those houses piled upon one another, which are admittedly cheap to run, but which are so very expensive from a health point of view – were asleep when, assisted by the two women, and treading softly, they placed Durrant in the car, heavy and unconscious owing to the drug which had been given him.

Lilla then mounted to the driver's seat, and, leaving Ena to close the flat and return to Upper Brook Street as best she could, Boyne and his wife, with their unconscious victim in the bottom of the car, sped out across Hampstead Heath, and northward upon the Great North Road.

Not till forty-eight hours afterwards did Gerald Durrant slowly and painfully awake to a knowledge of his surroundings. By that time Marigold and the others had been reassured by the telegrams.

Gerald's first impression was of a strange, rather healthful smell – a smell of tar. He looked around. The ceiling of the room was low – a ceiling which badly required whitewashing. Before him was a small square window – a very small window. And he was lying fully dressed upon a narrow iron bedstead.

Apparently the house was an old cottage, but quite unfamiliar. He tried to think, but his brain was addled. His memory refused to serve him. The sun was shining in at the window, and the little room seemed close and stuffy. It was the sunset, he gathered.

Try how he would, he could recollect absolutely nothing. All he could recollect were the faces of those two women whom he had assisted in their distress.

He strove to think. At last, he recollected how Mrs. Evans had given him that glass of good port, and how afterwards they had chatted together. Then all was blank.

Of time he had no idea. What, he wondered, would Marigold think of his absence? And what would they think at the office?

His first impulse was to wire to Wimbledon Park and to Mincing Lane. Yes, it was imperative that he should do so.

Yet he knew not where he was, for as he raised himself upon his elbow from the bed, he saw that the only look-out from the small window was a high brick wall, apparently the wall of a warehouse. The room was dusty and uncleanly. There was no carpet – nothing save a very ragged square of black-and-white linoleum. He got up and, dazed as he was, he tried the door. It was strongly bolted from without!



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