William Le Queux.

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



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He shouted – yelled at the top of his voice, but nobody came. Upon the little deal table he saw something which told him that he was a prisoner – a jug containing some water, and a plate with some unwholesome-looking cooked meat and some bread.

He examined them with a rising feeling of indignation. Then, in a fury, he raised a heavy wooden chair, and savagely attacked the door. Time after time, he took it by its leg and banged it upon the door, making a tremendous noise. Yet the strong oak resisted every attempt, until, piece by piece, the chair was broken up. Then he looked around for something stronger. There was a rusty iron fender. This he took up, and using it as a battering ram struck the door repeatedly. But the fender being of cast iron broke in half, but made no injury to the door.

He crossed to the window and, smashing the glass, tried to open it. But outside were strong iron bars. He was indeed a prisoner!

In desperation he flung the mattress from the bed, and, taking down the bedstead, attacked the door vigorously with one of the iron bars. He used the end – for it was hammered out – as a crowbar and succeeded after long effort in inserting it between the door and the lintel, but so well was it secured by bolts that he had no power to force it open, and in the end the thin iron bent, and thus became useless.

Presently he hammered on the floor, and tried to awaken somebody, still all to no purpose. In the meanwhile, darkness was falling and soon he would, he knew, be without light. Notwithstanding that his head was aching terribly, and there was a feeling as though his skull was slowly being crushed in a vice, he set to work to liberate himself in another way.

He tore aside the old linoleum, and succeeded in forcing up one of the dirty floor-boards. This he followed by another, and yet a third, until below was revealed the plaster of the ceiling of the room underneath.

Then, taking a heavy piece of the bedstead, he struck down with all his might.

The iron struck the plaster, but, contrary to his expectation, he was unable to force a hole through the ceiling. Then, suddenly, to his dismay, he discovered that what he had believed to be plaster was concrete – that the floor was a fireproof one, and that being so, any attempt to penetrate it without proper tools was foredoomed to failure.

He gazed about him, utterly bewildered.

What could have happened after he had drunk that glass of port so kindly offered him by the handsome Mrs. Evans? That he was in the hands of enemies it was plain, but who were they? He wondered whether his incarceration in that place had any connection with his inquisitiveness concerning Bernard Boyne.

He reflected. Boyne had not been cognisant of being followed. He was convinced of that. Had he been so, he would not have paid those nocturnal visits to Pont Street and Upper Brook Street.

In the evening light he stood utterly perplexed. At his feet he saw that the boards were discoloured by a large brown stain some three feet in diameter.

One part of it was thick, as though dark paint had been spilled there. He bent to examine it more closely, and from the wood scraped a portion of the thick substance with his finger-nail.

The stuff seemed curiously sticky, very much like paint. He took it across to the window, and there examined it minutely in the light, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger.

Next moment a cry of horror escaped him. "Great Heavens!" he gasped. "Why – it's blood!"

Apparently there had been a pool of blood there, but it had nearly all dried up, save that portion which had not yet become completely hardened.

What could it mean?

He returned to the spot which had been immediately beneath where he had lain upon the bed. Had some previous occupant of that barred room been foully done to death while sleeping? It certainly seemed that such was the explanation.

"Who brought me here, I wonder?" he said aloud to himself, as the ghastly suggestion crept over him. "What is Marigold thinking of my disappearance? What can they think of it at the office?"

Across the narrow room he paced in frantic anger at having been so entrapped without the slightest motive. The dead silence of the place oppressed him. Without knowledge of where he was, either in London or in the country, he set his teeth and regretted the moment when he went to the assistance of the two women. Yet, surely, they could have nothing to do with his detention there? The absence of motive held him completely perplexed.

In the fast-fading light he made a complete and minute inspection of that chamber wherein he had made the gruesome discovery. If someone had really been done to death in that place recently, then there might be other traces of the tragedy. Further, how was he to know that he, in turn, would not fall a victim!

Hastily, because the light was going, he turned out a cupboard, but found nothing save a quantity of newspapers. Some rubbish in the rusty fireplace he examined, but his search there was also fruitless.

Then he turned his attention to a long, narrow double-doored cupboard let into the wall close to the bed. One door was bolted from within, and the other locked. To force it open was only the work of a few moments. Within he found a quantity of feminine apparel of good quality, a skirt, shoes, and other things.

One object which he took up caused him to ejaculate another cry of horror, and to hold his breath.

He carried it across to the broken window, and there bent to see if what he suspected was the actual truth.

Yes! He satisfied himself that it was. What he held in his hand was a woman's cream cr?pe-de-chineblouse, prettily trimmed with lace, but the neck, chest, and all over the left sleeve were stained with blood!

"Then the victim was a woman!" he gasped aloud.

Quickly he examined all the other articles of attire, but found no traces of blood upon any other. He decided to keep his knowledge to himself, so that when he escaped, as he intended to do, he might at once inform the police of what he had found. Therefore he instantly set to work to replace the floor-boards, and recover them with the old piece of linoleum which hid the great ugly stain. Then, restoring the room to order in the best way possible, he replaced the blouse and the other feminine garments where he had found them, and was able – after a great deal of difficulty, for it was nearly dark – to place the two doors of the cupboard together in such a way that they closed, so that all trace of them being forced was thus removed.

That some unknown woman had recently lost her life in that place was now quite certain. After he had put the place in order again – all save re-erecting the bedstead, for this could not be done, neither could he mend the broken chair – he stood in the darkness pondering. It was impossible to remain in that horrible place all night. If he slept he might be attacked, as the poor woman had probably been. And in his half-dazed condition he needed sleep badly.

His one thought was of Marigold.

"What will she think, poor girl!" he cried aloud in his anguish. "What has she done now that I am missing?"

He listened. There was no sound save the chiming of a church clock in the distance, followed by the shrill whistle of a locomotive. Then he heard the long-drawn siren of a ship repeated three times, but some distance away. Evidently the place was near a river, or perhaps by the sea. That would account for the smell of tar.

Then all became quiet again. The silence and darkness began to get upon his nerves until he could stand it no longer. The thought that a dark tragedy had been perpetrated upon that very spot where he stood filled him with horror.

Therefore at last he again went to the window, and began to send up some unearthly yells in a fierce endeavour to attract the attention of somebody outside.

Time after time he repeated his shouts, but nobody answered. He could hear the voices of two common women gossiping, and though he could not see them he shouted to them. But they only deigned to yell back.

"Oh, shut up! Do shut up – whoever you are!"

Suddenly he recollected that drunken brawls and cries for help are only too frequent in lower-class neighbourhoods, therefore his cries for assistance, though they must be heard, were being disregarded.

So he desisted, and resolved to remain patient a further quarter of an hour, and then resume his cries for help.

He was standing in the darkness near the window when a slight and curious movement behind him caused him to turn sharply.

Beneath the door he saw a light, but whoever was there wore rubber soles to their shoes, for they made no sound. The slight noise which had fallen upon his strained ears was the slow and stealthy drawing of a bar outside the door.

Someone was creeping noiselessly in!

On tiptoe he crossed, and, seizing the bar of iron, sprang behind the door, his hand raised ready to fell any person who entered.

The handle of the door was very slowly turned, but next second – ere he became aware of it – a strange thing happened.

CHAPTER XXI
LOST DAYS

As the door of the room in which he was imprisoned slowly opened, and he stood ready to attack the new-comer and fight for his liberty, he became suddenly blinded and rendered utterly powerless by a burst of heavy grey smoke.

He drew one whiff of it, and, reeling, fell senseless upon the floor.

Then, as the fumes which had rendered him unconscious slowly cleared, there stood in the dim light a form wearing an exact replica of the white cloak and hood which Bernard Boyne used when he visited that upstairs room in Hammersmith. The window being broken, and now that the door was open too, the fumes quickly dispersed, yet Gerald lay there where he had fallen, pale as death, and breathing only slightly.

"A heavy dose!" laughed the hooded man grimly. "He won't get over it for quite a long time!"

And then he turned and left, leaving the door still open, so that all trace of the poisonous vapour which he had released from a heavy iron cylinder should be removed.

An hour later he returned, but without his cloak, for the gas-mask was no longer needed. He carried an electric torch, which he flashed into the white face of the unconscious victim.

"You'll soon go away – never to return!" growled the mysterious man aloud; and then suddenly by the reflection of the light his face became revealed.

It was Bernard Boyne.

"The fellow knows too much – and so does the girl!" he muttered to himself. "We must deal with her next. But she's not yet dangerous. Still, as Lilla says, in our business we can't afford to take any risks. So stay there for the present, my friend," he added.

And bending he felt the prostrate man's pulse in the professional manner of a medical man. Then, apparently well satisfied, he crossed the room, closed the window and, after locking the door outside again, descended the stairs.

When young Durrant at last began to slowly recover his senses, he awakened to find himself seated in an arm-chair in a small and not uncomfortable cabin on board a ship. The vessel was rolling heavily, and ever and anon the waves swept up past the porthole, partially obscuring the light.

He drew his hand across his fevered brow and endeavoured to think. But all was hazy, uncertain, and unreal. Was he still dreaming? he asked himself. He placed both his hands upon the arms of the leather-covered chair and felt them. No! It was no dream! He was on a ship at sea!

Suddenly across his brain swept recollections of that room in which he had been imprisoned – that gruesome chamber with its unmistakable evidence of a tragedy – the place in which some unknown woman had been foully done to death. He remembered his meeting with those two ladies outside Kensington Gardens, their hospitality and its dire result. At any rate, there was one satisfaction, that his enemies, whoever they were, had spared his life.

He rose, his limbs feeling very sore and stiff. How long had elapsed since he had so suddenly met that mysterious burst of smoke he had no idea. Nor had he any knowledge of where he had been, or where that room of tragedy was situated. All remained a complete blank.

In rising to his feet he nearly fell owing to the heavy roll of the vessel – a steamer evidently, for he could feel the vibration of the engines. Unsteadily he opened the door, and found himself in a narrow gangway, with several cabins on either side. Opposite him a door stood open, revealing a burly, dark-bearded man in uniform lounging in a chair, smoking a pipe and reading a book.

Hearing Gerald's footsteps he turned his head.

"Hulloa!" he cried roughly. "Got over your drunk then, Mr. Simpson? Come in here!"

"Thanks," was Durrant's reply. "But I never drink, and my name is not Simpson."

"Ah! I thought you'd say that! Sit down, anyway," the captain remarked, with a good-humoured laugh. "Yesterday when we had a chat, you didn't deny that your name was George Simpson, did you?"

"I don't remember having had a chat with you yesterday," replied Gerald, amazed at the captain's words.

"Ah! You don't remember much, do you? Got a very bad memory, I know."

"No, I've got a pretty good memory, and to my knowledge I've never seen you in my life before."

"And yet you spent last night with me, and drank more than you ought to have done. Whisky is a bad thing for you, young fellow. You should leave it alone. Never drink till you're forty-five. That's what I say."

Durrant sank into the chair, and gazed around the captain's cabin absolutely bewildered.

"What ship is this?" he asked at last.

"You asked me that yesterday. This is the Pentyrch, of Sunderland, bound from Hull to Singapore," was the reply.

"And we are on our way there!" gasped the young man in blank dismay.

"Yes. Three days out."

"Where are we now?"

"Off Finisterre."

"Will you tell me your name, Captain?" Durrant asked quite calmly.

"Bowden – John Bowden. And I live at Empress Villa, Queen Street, Sunderland. Aged forty-one; married; two kids. Anything more?"

"Yes, a lot," was the other's reply.

"You asked me a lot of questions about the ship last night, and I told you. We've got a general cargo, and after Singapore we go to Batavia, then to Wellington, New Zealand, and back home."

"How long shall we be away?"

"Oh! perhaps nine months – perhaps more if I get other orders," was Bowden's breezy reply. "This old tub ain't very fast, you know. She isn't one of your slap-up liners. We never have passengers. I don't like 'em. Only Mr. Morton asked me to take you out for the benefit of your health, and I consented."

"Mr. Morton! Who's he?"

"A friend of yours, isn't he?"

"I don't know anyone of that name," declared Gerald astounded.

Captain Bowden looked straight into the young man's face for a few moments in silence, and then, nodding his head, said:

"Ah! Of course!"

"Why of course?" asked Gerald in annoyance at the captain's tone.

The other only shrugged his shoulders, and continued puffing at his big briar pipe.

Gerald was utterly mystified.

Since that moment when he had lost consciousness in the presence of the two ladies he had assisted until the present, all his recollections were blurred and indistinct. Bowden had accused him of drinking heavily the night before. Yet he felt certain that he had never previously set eyes upon the black-bearded man before him. His unknown enemies had spared his life, but they had sent him out upon a nine months' voyage, evidently to get rid of him for some reasons known to themselves.

Was Bernard Boyne at the bottom of it all? He wondered. Yet Boyne could not know anything of his efforts to unravel the mystery of his life. How could he possibly know?

"Look here, Captain Bowden," he said firmly at last. "Let us be frank with each other."

"I'm always frank, young man – too frank for some people!" was the bluff seafarer's reply.

"Well, be frank with me. Tell me – do you know any man named Boyne – Bernard Boyne?"

"Never heard the name before," snapped the other. "What about him?" And he crossed his legs encased in his heavy sea-boots.

"Well, I thought perhaps you might know him," Durrant said. Then, catching sight of the coat he was wearing, he was surprised to see that it was unfamiliar – a heavy blue-serge suit, such as he had never before possessed. The mystery increased as each moment passed.

"No. I don't know any man named Boyne. Who and what is he?"

"He's an insurance agent at Hammersmith."

"That's somewhere in London, ain't it?"

"Yes. I'm a Londoner."

"Oh, are you? Yes, I thought so."

"Why did you think so?" asked Durrant.

"Because I know you come from Liverpool."

"You're trying to be funny!"

"Oh, no, I'm not! It's you who always tries to be funny, young fellow. You sat with me here, in my cabin, last night, and yet to-day you deny having done so."

Gerald rose from his chair, intending to firmly withstand the black-bearded fellow's ridiculous allegations, but at that instant he felt that same half-intoxication creeping over him, and he subsided.

"Captain Bowden, I'm sorry to tell you that I honestly think you are lying to me," he said a moment later.

"Thanks for the compliment, Mr. Simpson. I won't retort because you'll be ill if I do. We're in for bad weather in the Bay, I'm afraid. Glass falling with a run."

"I've never been to sea before," remarked Gerald hopelessly, yet surprised that the captain should take his challenge so mildly.

"Well, you'll get your sea-legs on this voyage, I can tell you," laughed the heavy-jowled captain.

At that moment the first mate came in, holding himself as he stood against the heavy rolling of the tramp steamer.

"Cargo is shifting a bit in number four hold, sir," he said. "Shall I tell Jenkins to call the men and see to it?"

"Yes. Do what the devil you like, Hutton," snapped the captain. "I see we're in for hellish weather. Look at the glass!"

"I noticed it half an hour ago, sir. We shall catch it strong after sundown."

"Yes, we shall. Better make everything tight now."

Then, turning to Durrant, Captain Bowden, refilling his pipe, remarked:

"That's the worst of these cursed old tubs. But you see, after the war they can't get new ones. All those labour troubles on the Clyde have interfered with shipbuilding. I was promised a brand-new boat a year ago. But she's still on the stocks. When she goes out I shall do the ferry trade from the Levant to London – four weeks out and home."

"But, now tell me – who put me on board this ship?" asked Gerald.

"Who put you on board? why, your friend, Mr. Morton."

"My friend? Why, I don't know the man!"

Bowden smiled, and showed that he was not convinced.

"What was this fellow Morton like?" inquired Durrant eagerly. "Describe him to me."

"Oh! a rather tall, lean, herring-gutted chap, with a baldish head, and narrow little eyes," was the reply. "But you can't tell me that you don't know him. Why, you were with him when I promised to take you on this trip."

"With him!" echoed Gerald. "I certainly was not."

"Ah! The worst of you, Mr. Simpson, is that you're so forgetful," exclaimed the breezy captain.

"I'm not forgetful!" cried Durrant resentfully, rising to his feet again, and steadying himself from the slow roll of the ship. "How did you come to know this mysterious friend of mine – Morton, you say is his name?"

"That's my affair! You don't believe me, so why should I bother to answer your questions?"

"I don't believe you when you say that I was here with you yesterday," was Gerald's frank reply.

"No, because your brain is addled," laughed Bowden deeply, knocking the ashes from his pipe. At that moment the ship's bell clanged loudly, marking the time. It was eleven o'clock in the forenoon.

"Yes, it is addled, I admit," said Durrant. "I've been the victim of a foul plot. I – well, let me tell you."

"Oh! I don't want to hear it all over again. You've already told me twice how you assisted two ladies in Kensington, how they took you to their house, and gave you a dose of drug. Then, how you found yourself imprisoned in a house, and all that long rigmarole. Spare me again – won't you?" the captain begged.

Durrant stood aghast.

"But I've never told you anything about it!" he said. "I've never told a living soul about my strange adventure."

"Look here, Mr. Simpson," said the captain, rising from his chair with slow deliberation. "I'm beginning to think that you're not quite in your right senses. You told us all about it last night in this very cabin – how you had been entrapped, drugged, and taken away."

"Yes. That is quite true, but I have never told anyone of it."

"Well, the less you say about that affair the better, I think. Nobody will believe you."

"But don't you think I'm telling the truth?"

"No. I know you are not. Morton told me that you were obsessed by the belief that you've been the victim of some very cunning plot, and that you were drugged," said the captain. "Now, just forget all about it, and enjoy your trip!" he added good-humouredly.

"Ah! This person, Morton, has told you, has he? He told you so as to discredit me when I explained to you the truth," cried Durrant. "But what I have told you are the true facts."



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