William Le Queux.
The Red Widow: or, The Death-Dealers of London
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As he followed her in the crowd along the street, he muttered some sinister words beneath his breath:
"I have dealt with your lover, young lady," he growled to himself. "Now I must lose no time in dealing with you. You have only yourselves to blame for trying to poke your noses into my private affairs!"
Then he watched her disappear down the area steps, and afterwards crossed the bridge, and made a call upon a man he knew who lived in Castelnau Mansions.
Old Mrs. Felmore got her niece some cold meat and tea, for the girl had taken off her coat and hat, having decided to spend the evening with her aunt.
Much of their conversation concerned Gerald Durrant. The abrupt manner of his departure was, of course, a complete mystery, but the old woman inwardly had her doubts. What more likely than that Durrant, like so many other young men, had grown suddenly tired of Marigold and had "faded out," sending those reassuring telegrams in order to lighten the blow which he knew the poor girl would receive? This, indeed, was her fixed opinion, though naturally she said nothing of it to her niece.
"Auntie," said the girl presently, "I can't help feeling that something serious has happened to Gerald. I seem to become more apprehensive day by day, until I can't work – I can only sit and think – and think!"
"No, no, dearie," exclaimed the old woman cheerfully. "You mustn't let it get on your nerves. Those telegrams he sent told you not to worry. And I wouldn't – if I were you! It will all come right in the end."
"Ah!" sighed the girl. "Will it? – that is the question. Time is going by, and we hear nothing."
"He's probably in Paris – or somewhere – on some confidential business for his firm."
"But his firm know nothing of his whereabouts."
"Well, if he had gone on some secret business they would naturally profess ignorance," the woman pointed out.
"Do you know, I'm half inclined to go to the police and consult them," Marigold said.
"Ah! That's not a bad idea!" her aunt replied. "Go to the head police-station just outside the Broadway, and ask their opinion. They would take his description and advise you what to do, no doubt. I'd go to-morrow."
"I shan't have time to-morrow," the girl said. "I'll go round now. It's only nine o'clock." And, putting on her hat and coat, she went along to the headquarters of the T Division of Metropolitan Police.
But as she passed along the streets a dark figure went noiselessly behind her – the sinister figure of Bernard Boyne. She was going in the direction of the Underground Railway station, hence he concluded that she was on her way home.
He, however, received a rude and sudden shock when he saw her halt beneath the blue lamp, and ascend the steps of the police-station.
"Phew!" he gasped aloud. "Whatever is she there for? To give evidence against me – to put the police upon my track! By Jove! There's no time to lose. It must be done to-night!"
Next instant he turned, and going to the railway station he obtained a leather handbag from the cloak-room, and hastened with it back to his house.He wore rubber heels to his shoes, and moved swiftly and almost noiselessly.
In the darkness he ascended the steps, and opened the front door with his key. There was no light in the hall, and he could see through the Venetian blind of the kitchen that Mrs. Felmore was below.
Without passing into the sitting-room, he went straight upstairs to the mysterious apartment in which the hooded figure lived in secret. First, he placed his handkerchief over his mouth, and then, opening the door, passed in and switched on an electric torch which he produced from his pocket.
Without hesitation he unlocked the heavy bag, and took therefrom a long narrow deal box, which he opened, apparently to make certain that nothing was broken within, and then, placing it upon a table, drew down a little electric switch which was fitted at one end of the box.
Afterwards, scarcely looking around, he left the room, relocked the door, and crept out of the house without anyone having seen or heard him, old Mrs. Felmore being quite unconscious of her master's secret visit.
Back at the end of Hammersmith Bridge, Boyne glanced at his watch; then, chuckling to himself, he hurried to the police-station, in order to watch Marigold farther in case she had not already left.
When the girl had told the sergeant on duty the reason of her visit, she was passed upstairs into a room, where she was seen by the Inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department attached to the Division, a clean-shaven, fresh-complexioned man, who listened to her story very attentively.
From time to time he took notes of names and addresses.
"Have you any of the telegrams which the missing man sent you?" he asked presently.
From her handbag she produced two of the messages, which he read carefully.
"And since the twenty-third of last month you've not seen him?" he asked.
"No," replied the girl.
"And in Mincing Lane they have heard nothing since the receipt of the last telegram?"
"Nothing – neither has his sister."
The inspector looked her straight in the face, and said:
"I presume, Miss Ramsay, that this gentleman was a particular friend of yours, eh?"
Marigold blushed slightly and responded in the affirmative.
"Is there any reason you suspect why he should have gone away so suddenly? Did you – well, did you quarrel with him, for instance?"
"Not in the least. We were the best of friends," she answered. "I came here to ask whether you could assist me in finding him."
The clean-shaven man drew his breath, and gravely shook his head.
"I fear that we shall be unable to help you," he replied.
"Why? He is missing. Surely the police can trace him!" she cried in disappointment.
"No. He is not missing," was his answer. "The fact that he sent those telegrams is sufficient to show that he is keeping out of the way for some purpose best known to himself. He has, no doubt, some secret from you."
"Secret from me?" she echoed in dismay. "No, we both had a secret."
The inspector only smiled. He, of course, thought she alluded to the fact that they were lovers.
She saw his amusement, and wondered whether she dare be frank and tell him of their suspicions concerning Mr. Boyne. Yet the thought flashed across her mind that the story of his visits to that upstairs room, clothed in that strange garb, would never be credited. The London police hear strange stories from hour to hour, many of them the result of vivid imaginations, of hearsay, or deliberate attempts to incriminate innocent persons. Malice is at the bottom of half the fantastic stories told by women to officers of the Criminal Investigation Department, and Marigold saw that even though she told the truth, it would not be believed. Yet could she eliminate the real reason why her suspicions had first been aroused? She resolved to be frank, therefore after a brief pause, she said:
"The secret shared by Mr. Durrant and myself was concerning a certain man, resident close by here."
"Oh! And what is it?" asked the officer eagerly.
"Well, we have certain suspicions regarding a gentleman named Boyne, who lives in Bridge Place."
"Boyne? Why, not old Bernie Boyne the insurance agent?"
"Yes. Do you know him?"
"Oh – well, he's well known about Hammersmith," was the inspector's discreet reply. "What about him?"
"There is something about him that is mysterious," declared the girl. "Very mysterious."
"And what's that?"
"Well, Mr. Durrant was helping me to watch his movements when he suddenly disappeared!"
"Ah! That's interesting. Did Boyne know you were watching?"
"No. He had no suspicion. We watched him go to two houses, one in Pont Street, and the other in Upper Brook Street," Marigold said. "At night he dresses smartly and goes into the West End."
"A good many men do that, miss. By day they earn their money honestly by hard work, and at night fritter it away up West. I don't really see what there is in that. Isn't there anything else you know?"
Marigold hesitated. She feared to tell him of the strange disguise.
"Well, my aunt is Mr. Boyne's housekeeper, and I know that a room at the top of the house is kept locked."
"A good many upstairs rooms are kept locked. There's nothing much in that, I think."
"But I heard noises inside – a human cry!"
The inspector looked at her with disbelief written upon his rosy countenance.
"Are you quite sure of that, Miss – er – Miss Ramsay?" he asked seriously.
"Yes. I heard it," was her firm reply.
"Ah! Then, because of that you and Mr. Durrant believed that Boyne has somebody in hiding upstairs. Is that so?"
She replied in the affirmative.
"And you don't think Boyne discovered that you were watching him? If he did, I think he would have resented it very much, for I've met Boyne once or twice. Indeed, I passed him in King Street an hour ago."
"You passed him! Perhaps he's back then. My aunt hasn't seen him for three days."
"Well, I saw him in King Street to-night, but he didn't see me." Then, after a pause, he added: "I think, miss, you're mistaken regarding Mr. Boyne. I only know him slightly, but I know in what respect he is held in the neighbourhood, and how his praises are upon everyone's lips – especially the church people."
"Then you don't think that he has anything to do with Mr. Durrant's disappearance?"
"Not in the least. I should dismiss that idea from my mind at once."
"But how about that locked room?"
"Your aunt will be able to fathom that if she keeps her eyes open," he said. "And as for Mr. Durrant, you'll no doubt hear from him very soon. To me it seems perfectly clear that he has some hidden motive for keeping out of the way. Are his accounts at the office all right, for instance?"
"Quite in order."
"Blackmail may be at the bottom of it. That accounts for the mysterious disappearance of lots of men and women."
"But who could blackmail Mr. Durrant?"
"Ah! you don't know. A little slip, a year or so ago, and the screw is now being put on by those who know the truth. Oh! that is an everyday occurrence in London, I assure you, Miss Ramsay."
"Then you can't help me to find him?" she asked eagerly, after a brief silence.
"I don't see how we can act," was the officer's answer. "Had he disappeared without a word we would, of course, circulate his description and a photograph – if you have one?"
"Yes, I have one," she said anxiously.
"Good. But that is useless to us, for the simple reason that, after leaving you, he has sent you messages telling you not to worry. In face of that, how can we assume that anything tragic has happened to him? No, my dear young lady," he added. "I fear we cannot help you officially, much as I regret it."
Five minutes later Marigold descended the stairs, and walked out into the dark road utterly disconsolate and disappointed. Gerald was missing, yet the police would raise not a finger to assist her in tracing him!
Yet, after all, as she walked back to Bridge Place, she saw quite clearly that there was much truth in the detective-inspector's argument. Gerald had not suddenly disappeared and left no trace. He had urged her not to worry, and the inspector had advised her to keep on hoping for his return.
Later she sat in the kitchen with her aunt, and related all that had passed at the police-station.
"I quite agree with the inspector," declared the deaf old woman. "The police can't search for every man who goes away and sends telegrams saying he has gone. You see, Mr. Durrant hasn't committed any crime, for instance. So there's no real reason why the police should act. If he hadn't sent telegrams the case would be so different."
With that view the girl, greatly distressed and broken, had to agree.
It was then nearly ten o'clock, and at her aunt's suggestion Marigold resolved to stay the night and keep the old woman company.
"You can have the same room you had a little time ago," she said. "It is aired, for I always keep hot-water bottles in it in case it may be wanted. If you went home now, you wouldn't get there till half-past eleven. Besides, it's more cheerful for me. I'm beginning to hate this place now Mr. Boyne never comes near."
"The inspector said he saw Mr. Boyne in King Street to-night," Marigold said.
"Bosh! my dear," was old Mrs. Felmore's prompt reply. "He wouldn't be in King Street without coming home. It was somebody else he saw, no doubt." And that was exactly what Marigold herself thought.
Soon after half-past ten, Mrs. Felmore put out the light, and they both went to bed.
For half an hour Marigold lay awake thinking it all over, and thinking of the last occasion she had slept in that room, and of the mysterious chamber upstairs whence had issued those strange human cries. Then, at last, tired out, she dropped off to sleep.
How long she slept she knew not, but suddenly she was awakened by men's shouts, and next instant found the room full of smoke. There was a roaring noise outside. Half suffocated she groped her way to the door frantically, only to find the staircase above in flames.
"Auntie! auntie!" she yelled, not recollecting that her aunt was deaf, but by dint of fierce courage she got to the old lady's room. As she entered the door, Mrs. Felmore, half choking, met her in the red light thrown by the flames, and together they sprang down the staircase, along the hall, and, after fumbling with the chain upon the door, dashed out of the house to where a number of people, including three police constables, were awaiting the arrival of the fire brigade.
Meanwhile the top floor of the house was burning fiercely, the flames going up through the roof for many feet, and as there was rather a high wind, the sparks were flying everywhere.
Bernard Boyne's long deal box had sent petrol about the room of mystery at the time to which it had been set, and already all evidence of what was contained there, and of the mysterious origin of the fire, had been obliterated.
The insidious death-dealer had hoped to include Marigold and his housekeeper in that relentless plot to destroy all that might incriminate him.
But he was mistaken. Marigold Ramsay, though in her night attire – and who had fainted in the arms of a constable – had escaped unscathed!