William Le Queux.

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



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The two women exchanged glances, for the light in the faces of both had died out.

"C?line here!" gasped Ena. "How much does she know?"

"How can we tell? I've simply defied her."

"But why didn't you offer to pay? They, of course, want money."

Rapidly he described to the two excited women what had occurred. Then at last Lilla said:

"Well, the only thing we can do is to sit tight. We must – if we are to get the money paid on dear Augusta's policy."

"Of course, we can't slip out, or it would be an admission, if C?line really goes to the police."

"There is nothing to prevent her," remarked Ena. "The girl is dangerous."

"So is that girl Ramsay. I've always said so," Lilla declared. "Her lover is out of the way, and the sooner she herself is silenced the better, for as long as that pair are alive they will always be a menace to us."

"I quite agree," said the red-haired widow. "You said that many weeks ago."

"Well, it is all in Bernie's hands. It's no use getting the insurance company to pay without taking due precautions to protect ourselves, is it?" asked Boyne's wife.

The death-dealers thereupon took counsel together. For an hour they sat discussing plans, each putting their idea forward. In the whole of criminal London no three persons were so callous, so ingenious, or so regardless of human life. They had discovered a means of making money with little exertion and with certain results. Boyne, expert as he was in insurance and of a scientific turn of mind, could deal death whenever and wherever he desired, and in such a manner that no coroner's jury could pronounce a verdict other than that death had supervened as a natural cause.

Not before three o'clock in the morning did Lilla and her husband leave Upper Brook Street, and when they did an elaborate and ingenious plan had been decided upon which left no loophole for discovery.

Mrs. Augusta Morrison of Carsphairn had died, and Ena would, of course, excuse herself from going to the funeral. She had mourning which, as a matter of fact, she had worn on more than one occasion when a wealthy friend of hers had died. But in this case she dared not put in an appearance.

At home in Pont Street, Boyne sat with his wife and discussed the situation at considerable length.

"You must get rid of that girl Marigold," she said very emphatically, as she lounged upon the silk-covered sofa in the elegant little room. "She suspects something at Bridge Place, just as her lover suspected. Well, we've successfully sent him off, and he can thank his lucky stars he didn't get a dose."

"I only wish now I had given him a little dose that would have caused him trouble about ten days after he sailed," Boyne said.

"Yes, Bernie. Recollect, I suggested it. They could have buried him at sea, and we should not have been troubled by him any further."

"I was a fool not to take your advice, Lilla."

"You always are.

But take my advice about the girl. She's distinctly dangerous! A menace to all of us! And so is your m?nage at Hammersmith – especially if C?line really does go to the police. You should end it all, and above everything close Marigold's mouth. That girl is the greatest peril we have before us!"

Her husband, who had lit a cigarette, and was lounging in a chair, agreed with her.

"But," he said, "how am I to do it? We are in a devilish tight corner, Lilla! The game has been a great and very easy one up to now. Nobody has ever yet tumbled to the scientific insurance stunt. And there's lots of money in it. We've found it so. We've got between us eighty thousand or so. A very decent sum. And we could make a million, given a quiet market. Look at the lots of red– or golden-haired women who are wealthy and who are not of any use on earth. Life assurance companies are always on the look-out for business, and pay commission to any and every little tin-pot agent who can put through a proposal. Remember that young fool of a solicitor in Manchester. And there are hundreds about the country everywhere."

"That's so, Bernie," replied his wife in a matter-of-fact tone, she having taken a cigarette to smoke with her husband. "But here we have a peril before us. We were never in such a tight corner before. This may finish us!"

"Oh! my dear Lilla, don't get flurried. I am not. The fellow Durrant is on the high seas as a man who has had a nervous breakdown. Oh, that description! What a godsend it is to us all, isn't it? Nervous breakdown is responsible for a thousand and one evasions of the law – theft, bigamy, assault, forgery – in fact, almost any crime in the calendar can be committed and ascribed to the 'nervous breakdown' of the defendant. We've a lot to be thankful for from the doctors, Lilla," he said, "a lot to be thankful for!"

"Well," she said, puffing thoughtfully at her cigarette, "if the secret of Bridge Place were exposed, then I fear that you couldn't ascribe it to a nervous breakdown, eh?"

Boyne laughed.

"No, Lilla. You are always alive – you are amazingly clever!" he declared. "I did my best with that French girl, C?line, but – well, I'm not quite certain whether she won't go to the police and make a statement."

"Ah! I see," Lilla said quickly. "So we ought to clear out – and quickly."

"Out of London, but not abroad. But not yet. If all of us left suddenly, the insurance company might get scent of a mystery, especially if C?line says anything about old Martin to the police."

"But what of Marigold? Has she any suspicion that Durrant is on the sea?"

"None. Durrant telegraphed to her to urge her to be patient and that he will return. So she's waiting – and she'll wait a long time!

"Ah! really, Bernie, you are wonderful. That was a glorious idea of yours – those telegrams."

"Yes. They've worked well," he said. "Both the girl and his sister, as well as the fellow's employers, have all been reassured."

"But the girl is a menace, I repeat," the woman declared, "and as such you must see that her activity comes to an end. There are a dozen ways in which you can manage it. Adopt one of them, and lose no time about it," she urged.

"Yes," he said in a hard voice, "I ought to have taken your advice long ago."

"Well, take it now," she said. "There are enemies around us – C?line, Galtier, and this girl Ramsay. So be careful. We are in very serious peril!"

"True. How serious we have yet to learn. But let's remain cool and we shall most certainly win."

Almost as he spoke, however, the electric bell at the front door rang, causing them both to start.

"Whoever can it be at this hour?" gasped Lilla, jumping to her feet.

"Wait!" said Boyne, in a changed voice. "I'll go down and see."

He did so. Lilla stood breathless, listening. She heard him unbolt the door and open it.

Then she heard him give vent to a loud cry, half of surprise, half of terror, as a man's deep voice spoke.

CHAPTER XXV
THE RECLUSE

The commotion caused in Bridge Place by the fire at Mr. Boyne's was not of long duration. Ere the fire brigade arrived, however, so swift was the fire that the two top floors were gutted, thus destroying the secret of that locked chamber.

A woman who lived a few doors off, and who knew Mrs. Felmore, gave the deaf old woman and her niece shelter, and while the police kept back the crowd at both ends of the street the four engines which had arrived were soon pumping water upon the roaring flames. The house was an old one with much woodwork, therefore it burned like tinder, and Marigold had certainly only escaped with her life. The superintendent in charge of the firemen had already ascertained that no person remained within, and the men in their shining helmets, their figures illuminated by the glare from the flames, were clambering across the neighbouring roofs with their hose-pipes.

Soon the flames were got under by the powerful rush of water, but not before the roof had fallen in, and only the ground floor remained intact, while the houses on either side were badly damaged. Every now and then, when a beam fell, or a portion of wall collapsed, showers of sparks shot upward, and there was a burst of flames through the smoke.

A fire in any crowded district of London at whatever hour always attracts a large number of onlookers. That night was no exception, for a big crowd had assembled at either end of the street, and in the centre of the crowd towards Hammersmith Bridge, wedged between several women of the lower class, stood a shabbily-dressed man in a golf cap watching intently the progress of the fire.

He watched it with satisfaction, and saw the flames as they descended and burst through the windows of the second floor. When the roof fell in he smiled, though none noticed it.

The man saw that all evidence of his diabolical work had been destroyed, for he was none other than Bernard Boyne.

What had happened to Marigold and her aunt? He asked the woman standing next to him if any people were in the house.

"Yes. They say there's two women and a man there," was the reply. "The man got out, but the two women 'ave been burnt to death, poor dears! Ain't it terrible? They were asleep when the fire broke out. The firemen 'aven't got the bodies out yet."

"Terrible!" declared the man in the golf cap; and then he elbowed his way out of the crowd filled with satisfaction.

As he did so a youth shouted:

"Lucky for 'em – eh? Both the women got out just in time."

"Is that so?" asked Boyne.

"Yes," said the youth. "One of the firemen 'as just told me."

"There was a girl there, wasn't there?" Boyne queried.

"Yes; she was got out, with an old woman!"

"Where are they?"

"They say they're in a house just along there," was the reply.

Boyne held his breath and went on. At first he had believed that his dastardly plot had been successful, and that Marigold had fallen a victim to his clever machinations. At least, the two upper floors had been destroyed and certain evidence wiped out. The clock, the pocket-lighter, and the child's rubber airball filled with petrol, which had been in the box he had so silently introduced into the house while Marigold was at the police-station, had done their work just as he had intended. But he was filled with disappointment and chagrin when, after several other inquiries of firemen and others, he became convinced that old Mrs. Felmore and her niece had escaped.

At last, after watching until the excitement of the scene had died down and the crowd was dispersing, he learnt from one of the firemen – he dared not be seen by a police constable, for most of them knew him by sight – the house in which the two half-suffocated women had taken shelter.

Then he turned and trudged all the way back to Pont Street, for, dressed as he was, he did not wish to get there until the servants had retired.

He had made another great coup, it was true, but the peril of Marigold still existed. That was the one thought that obsessed him as he strode up the long Kensington Road, past the Albert Hall, and on towards Hyde Park Corner.

The night of Augusta's death had been fraught with sufficient perils in all conscience. He recollected the unexpected appearance of C?line and her companion, of how he had defied them, and how, later that night, a caller had come to Pont Street – a caller who could not be refused admission – the man who had for so long been in hiding in that upstairs room which had now been totally wiped out by the flames. "I shall have to reappear at home to-morrow full of surprise," he muttered to himself, as at last he let himself into the house in Pont Street, the door of which Lilla had left purposely unbolted.

Next day about noon, carrying a suit-case and dressed as he usually was when going about his duties in Hammersmith, he arrived in Bridge Place utterly amazed at finding his house wrecked and ruined. A constable was on duty – a man who knew him.

"Well, sir," exclaimed the man in uniform, "this is pretty bad, ain't it? The fire broke out late last night, but it's fortunate the two women got out in time."

"What?" gasped Boyne, apparently staggered at the sight. "What's happened? I've been away in Liverpool, and have only just got back!"

"Well, that deaf old woman will be glad you're back, sir. She's been round to the police-station telling 'em that you were away."

"Where is she?"

"In the house over there," and he pointed to it.

"You said there was another woman in the house. Who was she?"

"A girl. The old woman's niece, I've heard. She's all right, and went away early this morning."

"Oh, yes, I know her. Came to keep the old woman company while I was away, I expect," he said. "But how fortunate they were saved! How did it happen? Does anyone know?"

"The superintendent of the brigade was here about two hours ago, and they examined the ruins. They think that the fire must have broken out in the top room upstairs. I went over it with them. We found a lot of fused glass, which rather puzzled them."

"Oh, yes. A lot of bottles I kept upstairs. I suppose they melted in the heat," Boyne replied. "Did they find anything else?"

"No, nothing of any importance."

"Then they don't know how it broke out?"

"No; except that there must have been something up there very inflammable, they say, for the fire spread so quickly."

"Perhaps it was a bottle of benzine I had up there for cleaning my clothes," said Boyne. "But, any case, it's rough luck on me – for I'm not insured."

"Sorry to hear that, sir," replied the constable. "They said, you being an insurance agent, you would be certain to be covered against loss."

"No. It's the old story over again," Boyne said, with a grin, "'the shoemaker's child is the worst shod.' I was a fool not to insure against fire – an infernal fool! But it can't be helped. It's ruined me!" and he turned away and crossed the road to the house which the constable had indicated as the one where old Mrs. Felmore had sought shelter.

For half an hour Boyne sat listening while the old woman shouted to him excitedly her description of the fire. He adopted that mealy-mouthed attitude which he could assume at will – that attitude he adopted so cleverly when he went to church so regularly – and condoled with her.

"Of course, Mrs. Felmore, all this horrible catastrophe shall not make any difference to you. I hear you had Miss Marigold to keep you company. Quite right! But I'm so very sorry about it all. The poor girl must have been very frightened. Where is she?"

"She went back to Wimbledon Park about an hour ago, sir. She telegraphed to the bank excusing herself for to-day, as she only had clothes that were lent her."

"Ah! I am so sorry about that. But have you any idea how it all happened?" Boyne asked the old woman.

"No, sir, I haven't. I'm always so careful about fire," she answered. "I was burnt when I was a child, and therefore I always look at the kitchen grate and rake the cinders out before I goes to bed."

"But it seems to have been upstairs where the fire originated."

"Yes, sir," replied the old woman. "I expect it was the kitchen flue. I asked old Mr. Morgan, the sweep, to do it three weeks ago, but he was very busy, and he didn't come. I've cleaned out the range all right – but that's what I think. I'm sorry, sir, but it wasn't my fault, really it wasn't."

"Of course not, Mrs. Felmore. Morgan should have come when you ordered him," Boyne said.

Afterwards he succeeded in entering the gaunt blackened wreck of his home. With satisfaction he saw the frameless windows of the two upper floors, but inside a spectacle of utter ruin met his gaze. The water had come through the ceiling of his sitting-room, half of which was down, the stairs consumed, and all the remaining furniture ruined beyond repair.

From the cupboard, however, he took his pet "Nibby," who was still alive, and probably wondering at all the commotion.

"Poor little fellow!" he exclaimed, stroking the rat's pointed pink nose, and afterwards placing him in his pocket, as he did sometimes. "I shall give you to Mrs. Felmore."

And after a final look round at the scene of the wreckage, he returned to where his deaf old housekeeper was staying, and presented her with the tame rat.

Late that same afternoon Boyne hurried along Theobald's Road, past the railings of Gray's Inn, and crossing the busy road with its procession of tramcars, turned the corner into Harpur Street, a short, dingy thoroughfare of smoke-grimed, old-fashioned houses, once the residences of well-to-do people, but now mostly let out in tenements.

Before one of the houses on the left-hand side he halted, and pulled the bell. The door was opened by a young girl wearing a dirty apron and whose hair was in curlers.

"Good-afternoon, Mr. Bennett. Yes, 'e's upstairs," she exclaimed.

So up the uncarpeted stairs Boyne went to the top of the house.

"It's only me," he said reassuringly as he turned the handle of a door and unceremoniously entered a small, barely-furnished, ill-kept room.

A cheap oil lamp, smoking badly, was burning on the table, while near it, back in the shadow, sat the figure of a man huddled up in a ragged old armchair.

"You!" he grunted. "You've been a long time!

"I couldn't get here before, Lionel. It was too dangerous. I had to see that all was clear before I to enter this street. There's always a detective or two about here, and it wouldn't do for you to be seen outside."

"No," grunted the man, who, rising slowly to his feet came within the feeble zone of light which revealed a thin, bony face, with high cheek bones, an abnormal forehead, and a pair of deep-set dark eyes. The faded grey suit he wore was several sizes too big for him, yet his arms seemed of unusual length, and his hands were narrow and long, with talon-like fingers.

His countenance was truly a strange one, being triangular, with very narrow chin and very broad brow – the face of a man who was either a genius or an idiot.

"I waited all night for you!" he said in plaintive tones. "And you never came."

"Well, I'm not going to risk anything – even for you!" replied Boyne roughly. "I've got quite enough of my own troubles just now."

"Oh! What's happened?"

"Lots. It's a good job I got you away from Hammersmith, my friend. The place has burned up!"

"Burned up?" echoed the strange-looking man. "Oh! Then you've had the beautiful fire you used to talk about, eh? And has it all gone?"

"The lot. And a darned good job for you!"

"And that beautiful microscope?" the man asked regretfully. "Has that gone, too?"

"Yes. The whole bag of tricks has been consumed. That's why I didn't come last night," Boyne said.

"Oh! the beautiful mike!" exclaimed the abnormal creature, as though to himself. "And it cost such a lot – oh, such a lot!"

"Don't trouble about the microscope, you fool!" cried Boyne roughly. "Just try and pull yourself together and save your own skin. Where are those tubes? I want them."

The lean man in the over-large suit ambled across the room, his head bent forward, for he was very round-shouldered, and going to an old leather bag in the corner, slowly unlocked it and drew out a thick cartridge envelope which contained something hard.

Boyne took it from him quickly, and tearing it open, took out two dark-blue tubes of glass, the corks of which were sealed with wax.

"Are they all right?" he asked harshly. "Can you guarantee them? Now don't tell me a lie," he added threateningly, "or it will be the worse for you. I had a good mind to give you over to the police when you came to Pont Street the other night. You deserved it – venturing out like that."

"I got to know where you were, and I had to come and see you," whined the ugly creature as he ambled back to his chair.

"Don't do it again! Remain in hiding. Keep close here. You are in comfortable quarters. Old Mrs. Sampson below is always silent as regards her lodgers. Lots of men who have had this room have hidden from the police till they found a way out of it. Take my advice, and do the same. But don't attempt to come round to Pont Street – for we don't want you there, understand that?"

And he put the little glass tubes, which contained fatal bacteria, back into their envelope and placed them carefully in his pocket.

"But money! I must have money!" cried the other, a young-old man whose age it was impossible to determine though his hair was growing grey.

"Of course you must," laughed Boyne. "Here's fifty pounds to go on with. And keep a still tongue or it will be the worse for you. Recollect if you are unfortunate enough to be arrested, it will only be because of your own idiotic movements. Keep quiet here."

"Misfortune may befall any of us!" said the other in that peculiar whining voice which showed that his mental balance was not normal.

"True. But if you do happen to fall into the hands of the police, remember – breathe not a word. Trust to me to help you out of the scrape. Trust Mrs. Sampson downstairs – and trust me."

"Yes. But, oh, that beautiful mike! Burnt up. That beautiful mike!"

"Don't bother about that. I'll buy you another, and all the apparatus if you'll only keep a still tongue and remain in the house. I've told Mrs. Sampson not to let you out."



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