William Le Queux.

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



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"Oh! I won't go out. I promise you I won't," he said with an idiotic stare. "I only went to Pont Street because I wanted to know if you were all right."

"And incidentally you wanted money!" laughed the other. "Well, you had it – you have it again now. Remain quiet and content. I'm busy. I've got lots of things to look after. I've probably got to go away, but I'll see you have money to go on with all right."

"Very well," said the strange man. "This place is better than Hammersmith, living in a locked room for weeks and months, nobody to see, and only breathing the fresh air on the roof when everybody had gone to bed."

"But you had your work – your scientific work in bacteriology! You can't live without your work!"

"Ah, yes. I had my work. But, oh! it was so lonely – so very lonely."

"You're not lonely here," said Boyne cheerfully. "So don't bother. Take your ease, and make the best of it. You're in a house which shelters people like yourself. Here everyone keeps a still tongue – and nobody knows about little Maggie."

The curious man with the triangular face blinked across at Boyne – and remained silent for several moments.

"Little Maggie!" he gasped at last. "Little Maggie! Ah! I remember. I – "

Again he paused. Then glaring into Boyne's face with a strange wild expression, he said:

"You! Why – why you're – you're really Willie Wisden!"

"Of course I am," laughed Boyne. "But keep cool, Lionel, old chap, or you'll have one of those nasty attacks of yours coming on again. Ta-ta! I'll come back very soon," he said, and turning he left the room and descended the stairs.

"Perhaps I'll come back," he muttered to himself. "But I do not think so! The idiot has served me well, and I've got the tubes. That is all I want – at present!"

And a moment later he was walking in the darkness through Harpur Street.

CHAPTER XXVI
"GET RID OF THE GIRL!"

Ten days more had passed. Poor Mrs. Morrison had been buried at Brookwood, her sister and several relatives being among the mourners.

Notice had been given through a solicitor to the insurance company of the assignment of the policy for ten thousand pounds to Mrs. Braybourne. The solicitor, a perfectly respectable man practising in the City, had received a call from Mrs. Braybourne of Pont Street, and she had handed him the policy and the assignment. Boyne had first made secret inquiries regarding the unsuspecting lawyer, and found him to be a man with a very high reputation in his profession.

Hence the Red Widow and her two associates, having successfully defied the French ex-maid and her lover, were now awaiting payment by the insurance company. Boyne, on his part, had cleverly destroyed all traces of the secret of that upstairs room in which had lived for some time the half-demented, eccentric Lionel Gosden, who was so blindly obedient to every order of the criminal who held him in control.

"There only remains that girl!" remarked Boyne as he sat with his wife one night.

"Yes.

The sooner she's out of the way the better, my dear Bernie. She knows far too much."

"I've got the remainder of the stuff from Lionel."

"Then it will be quite easy. I needn't tell you the way."

Boyne smiled as he took another cigarette from his case.

"Yes," he said. "And then I think that Ena and I will clear off abroad and leave you as the lone widow in whose favour dear Augusta insured her life."

"True. We ought to part as soon as possible. What do they think of your absence from Hammersmith?"

"Oh, they know my home is burned up, but I put in an appearance now and then and collect up a few premiums just to show myself."

"I wonder what the girl told the police?" Lilla remarked thoughtfully.

"Some story which they, no doubt, put down to be a cock-and-bull statement – about the locked room, most probably. She might have heard Lionel moving about, or coughing, before I got him away from there. If so the noise would naturally excite her suspicion."

"What about the man Durrant?"

"Oh, we needn't trouble about him. It will be months before he can get back again, and when he does, he'll find none of us here, the girl dead – of natural causes, of course – and the house being rebuilt. We have nothing to fear from him, providing we can get rid of the girl."

"And that must be done at once," the handsome woman repeated. "While she is alive she will be a constant menace to us."

Next morning, when he left Pont Street, he went to the City, and, knowing that Marigold always went out at a quarter to one to her lunch, he waited outside the bank.

At last she came, a neatly-dressed and dainty figure of the true type of business girl, and at the corner of Fenchurch Street he met her as though by accident, and raised his hat.

"Why, Mr. Boyne!" she exclaimed in surprise.

"Yes. This is an unexpected meeting, Miss Marigold! I haven't seen you since the fire," he said. "How lucky that you and your aunt escaped! I can't think how it was caused, except that your aunt perhaps dropped a match upstairs before going to bed."

"No, Mr. Boyne," she said. "It's a mystery. I'm glad, however, that auntie is recovering from the shock."

"Have you heard anything lately of Mr. – what is his name? – Durrant, isn't it?"

"Not a word. I can't think what has become of him. They've heard nothing at his office since his last telegram."

"Oh! I shouldn't worry. He told you in his message not to worry, you know," he said cheerfully.

Marigold distrusted the man, yet she remembered how she and Gerald had resolved, at all hazards, to penetrate the mystery surrounding him. She could not deny that he had always been polite and generous towards her, and her aunt would never have a more kind and considerate master.

"Come and have some lunch with me," he suggested suddenly, as he glanced at his watch. "I'm just going to have mine. And I want to talk over your aunt's future – what she is to do while my house is being rebuilt."

Marigold hesitated a few seconds. Then she replied:

"I'm awfully sorry, Mr. Boyne, but my assistant is away ill, and we're most awfully busy in the bank to-day. I am only out for ten minutes this morning, I usually have half an hour."

"Then come somewhere and have dinner with me to-night."

"I can't to-night. I'm going to the theatre with a girl friend."

"To-morrow night, then," he said. "I'll meet you at Piccadilly tube station, say at seven, and we'll dine somewhere – eh?"

Again Marigold hesitated. She was naturally distrustful, yet she argued within herself that perhaps if she accepted his invitation she might learn from him something of interest.

"No," he laughed merrily. "I'm sure you won't refuse me, Marigold. I want to see what I can do for your aunt – because – well, perhaps I may not set up house again. And I don't want to leave her in the lurch, poor deaf old soul."

His solicitude for her aunt touched her, and so she promised to meet him as he suggested.

Then two minutes later he raised his hat and they parted.

As the girl sat with her glass of milk and sandwiches before her in the little teashop, strange thoughts crowded through her mind. The refusal of the police to assist her to find Gerald had hipped her, and ever since the night of the fire she had gone about utterly disconsolate and broken-hearted. The fire was mysterious, coming within an hour or so of her visit to the police. Yes; the more she reflected, the stranger still appeared the whole enigma.

She returned to the bank and sat hour after hour her books, but her only thought was of Gerald the reason of his disappearance.

Next day, just before noon, while she was busy at the bank, one of the male clerks came to her desk, and said:

"Miss Ramsay, you're wanted on the telephone."

"Me!" exclaimed Marigold, much surprised, for none of the staff were allowed to speak on the telephone except upon urgent family affairs. "Was this one?"

She hurried to the telephone-box and heard a female voice, which she recognised as that of Gerald's sister at Ealing.

"You there, Marigold. Listen!" she said. "I've just had a wire from Gerald. It's sent from Folkestone Harbour, and says:

"'Back again. Don't worry. With you soon, but not yet. Marigold knows why. Have wired her.– GERALD.'"

"Oh, how lovely!" cried the girl over the 'phone in wild delight. "I expect I've got a wire at Wimbledon. I'll tell you what he says. Such lots of thanks for ringing up. Good-bye. I'll come over and see you soon, dear. Righto!"

And she hung up the receiver, her cheeks flushed with the excitement of the good news.

Gerald – her Gerald – had spoken at last!

Further adding of figures that day was out of the question. She could not work, but, ever and anon, she raised her eyes to the big clock, the hands of which moved, oh! so slowly. At last five o'clock came, and she put her books away in the trolley ready to be wheeled to the strong room by the uniformed messenger, and putting on her hat and coat hurried away home in the crowded tube.

She missed her train, and things seemed to move too slow for her, but on arrival at the station she raced home. Yes, in the narrow hall of the little suburban villa lay a telegram on the hat-stand.

She tore it open with frantic haste, and read:

"Do not make inquiry about me. Am quite safe, and am in possession of some very important facts. Just returned from abroad. Be watchful, but do not feel anxious. Am quite all right. Love.– GERALD."

It reassured her. She dressed and went out to meet Mr. Boyne, carrying in her handbag the treasured message from Folkestone Pier, together with her powder-puff, her little mirror, and a few hairpins.

She had no idea, however, that at the moment when she was dressing to dine with her aunt's benefactor, a lady with red-brown hair, having taken tea at the Pavilion Hotel in Folkestone, was in a first-class carriage in a boat express for London, and that that same lady had only arrived in Folkestone a couple of hours before, and on meeting the boat had handed in the message at the office at the harbour.

She was at Piccadilly tube station quite early, and it was fully ten minutes before Boyne put in an appearance, smiling and happy.

"I'm so glad you've been able to come, Miss Marigold," he exclaimed, as he shook hands with her warmly. "Now, we'll just go and have a little dinner together, and talk about your aunt, eh?"

And he placed his hand upon her arm in a paternal manner, and started to cross the road to Coventry Street. "There's a little Italian place in Wardour Street where they do you excellently. A man I know told me of it the other day, and I dined there a couple of nights ago and found things very good. Not much of a place to look at, but good, well-cooked food. So let's go there."

She walked with him, but unable to contain her joy at receiving that reassuring wire from Gerald. She said, as they walked along Coventry Street:

"I've had a wire to-night from Mr. Durrant. He's all right."

"Have you really? How excellent!" exclaimed Boyne. "What does he say?"

"He wires from Folkestone pier. He's just arrived back in England, and he says he's all right. That's all."

"Well, what do you want more? Your boy is back, and no doubt you'll see him soon. I've always had in my mind that his absence has been due to some secret mission given to him by his employer. Those food people in Mincing Lane are profiteering out of all conscience, and Durrant's absence is only what might well be expected. He will get a big bonus for carrying out some little bit of delicate diplomacy with regard to food supplies from abroad."

They turned up Wardour Street, and presently stopped in front of one of the small, unpretentious little foreign restaurants, where one can always rely upon good cooking, even though the quality of the food sometimes leaves a little to be desired.

Not more than half a dozen people were in the white-enamelled little place, but the proprietor, a well-dressed, prosperous-looking little Italian, came forward to greet them.

"Table for two – oh! yes. You reserved it, sare – I know! This way, please." And he conducted them to a cosy spot in a corner where a table was laid ? deux.

Marigold, flushed with excitement on account of the telegram in her bag, threw off her coat, settled her blouse, and sat down opposite the man, while an elderly waiter was quickly in attendance.

"I've ordered dinner," said Boyne, rather impetuously. "Antonio will know." And he dismissed him.

"I've told them to get a nice little dinner for us," he said, looking across at the girl. "Well, now, Miss Marigold," he went on. "First, I'm delighted that you could come and have dinner with me to-night. Now that my house is no longer inhabitable, I live in rooms at Notting Hill Gate. But rooms are not like one's own home, and especially with your aunt as housekeeper. A more economical woman never lived. She'd save the egg-shells and turn them into money, if she could!"

And they both laughed.

"Yes; auntie is very saving," replied the girl, whose sole purpose in accepting the unusual invitation was to try and draw her host, and so further the plans set by her lover.

"Saving! What I always say is that she's the most perfect housekeeper anyone ever had. That's why I want to do something for her."

"It's really very good of you, Mr. Boyne," said the girl, "I know now keenly she has always looked after your interests."

"And I appreciate that, Miss Marigold. Now, my idea is to allow her two pounds a week till I get settled again."

"Very generous of you, I'm sure," replied Marigold. "With her infirmity, it's most difficult. Her deafness has increased the last six months, and she could never get another situation now. I'm sure of that."

"Then you'll look after her if she has two pounds a week regularly. – eh?"

"Yes. She can come and live with me at Wimbledon," the girl said. "I'm sure auntie will be very grateful," she added. "Only a couple of days ago she told me she was wondering what she would do now that the house is burnt, and she couldn't live with a neighbour for ever."

Boyne was silent for a few seconds. The waiter had placed the little plates of sardines, olives, and sliced beet upon the table, the usual hors d'oeuvres of the foreign restaurant.

The girl's host looked her in the face suddenly, and asked:

"Tell me, Miss Marigold, what friends have you?"

"Relatives, you mean? Well, practically none who count, except auntie and my sister," she replied, little dreaming that the man had put that question with an ulterior motive – and a very sinister one, too.

"And also Mr. Durrant," he laughed.

Marigold blushed.

"Don't fear. He'll soon be back with you, and no doubt explain matters."

The girl made no reply. It was her own secret that his absence was due to the inquiries he was making concerning the past career of the plausible and hard-working man who was at that moment her host.

The soup was served, a clear pot-au-feu, hot, and as the waiter turned away, Boyne drew handkerchief from his trouser pocket, and next moment a number of coins fell upon the floor.

Instantly Marigold drew her chair away from the table and bent down to see where they were. At that moment Bernard Boyne executed a clever trick which he had done before. He flicked into the girl's hot soup a piece of very soft gelatine that had been extracted only half an hour before from one of those mysterious blue glass tubes he had obtained from the idiot-scientist hiding in Harpur Street.

The piece of gelatine fell into the soup unnoticed by the girl, whose eagerness was centred upon the picking up of the lost coins, and the other diners only glanced across for a second, and did not notice the dropping of that fatal dose.

"Don't bother," he said airily next moment. "The waiter will find it. They are really only coppers. I was foolish to put my handkerchief there. Please don't bother. Your soup will be cold."

And, thus reassured, the girl drank her soup with her spoon and greatly enjoyed it – for it was excellent.

Boyne watched her with complete satisfaction and confidence.

The other courses were served: fillets of sole, and a chicken en casserole, with mushrooms, in true Continental style. Then a cup in which were fruit, ice-cream, and champagne, and black coffee afterwards.

The dinner Marigold agreed was excellent. Boyne smoked cigarettes and chatted merrily the whole time, until at last he paid the bill and walked back with her.

They shook hands, and she thanked him heartily. Then they parted, Boyne promising to see old Mrs. Felmore and pay her the amount he suggested.

As he strode along down the Haymarket, however, on his way back to Pont Street, he laughed aloud and muttered to himself:

"I don't think we shall be troubled with you, young lady, after a few more days!"

CHAPTER XXVII
"THE DAY AFTER TO-MORROW"

Three days passed. Marigold, on rising in the morning of the third day, felt hot and feverish. Her sister had suggested that she should telephone to the bank excusing herself.

"I think I've got a chill," Marigold remarked. "I felt rather queer yesterday."

"Then stay at home, dear."

"I can't," the girl declared as she put on her hat. "We're so awfully busy just now. Miss Meldrum and Miss Page are both away with influenza. I'm bound to go."

So she went, but feeling very ill. At the bank one or two of the girls remarked how unwell she looked, and as the morning wore on the pains in her head became worse. She could eat no lunch, and at two o'clock she was compelled to return home to Wimbledon.

She went straight to bed, but her friends troubled little, for it was evident that she was run down by the eternal anxiety over Gerald's absence, and that she had caught a severe cold.

Next morning she seemed worse, therefore her sister went for Doctor Thurlow, who lived in Kenilworth Avenue; but he was so busy that it was not possible for him to put in an appearance until nearly seven o'clock that evening.

He examined the girl, and though he could not diagnose the cause immediately, he at once recognised that she was decidedly ill. He prescribed a mixture, gave certain instructions, and promised to call early next morning.

This he did and found that her temperature had risen, and that she was much worse and a little delirious. In her delirium she called constantly for Gerald in a pathetic, piteous voice.

"Will my Gerald never come back to me?" she cried. "Will he never return?"

"She is ill – very ill," declared the doctor gravely to her sister. "We shall have to be extremely careful of her."

Marigold was coughing badly, for already a large area of her lungs had become involved and consolidated. Hence the doctor carried a portion of the sputum to his surgery, and that afternoon discovered the presence of the deadly streptococcus. On establishing the actual disease he at once telephoned for some anti-pneumococcic serum, and this he injected into the patient early next morning.

Having done so, he turned to her sister, and said:

"I am extremely sorry to tell you that this is our last hope. She is, I fear, collapsing fast. The organism I have found is most deadly, and I think it only right to tell you that my personal opinion is that the disease has gone too far."

"What, Doctor?" gasped the young woman, pale and anxious. "Will she die?"

"That I cannot say, but I never like to deceive my patients' friends in cases so critical as this. To me she seems to be growing weaker. I will be back at noon."

And the busy, white-headed doctor went out and drove away in his car.

Now on that same morning about eleven o'clock a tall, gaunt, hollow-eyed young man in a shabby tweed suit and golf cap walked quickly up from the Empress Dock at Southampton and across Canute Road to the railway-station, where he bought a third-class ticket for Waterloo.

"Back in England at last!" he muttered to himself as he entered an empty compartment. "I shall soon see Marigold again! Then we will get even with our enemies."

The unshaven man was Gerald Durrant, changed indeed from the spruce young secretary of Mincing Lane. He looked ten years older, for his face was pinched though bronzed, and the suit he wore was certainly never made for him.

The truth was that the steamer Pentyrch, of Sunderland, ran into very bad weather in the Bay of Biscay, and during a great storm off the Morocco coast Captain Bowden thought it wise to put in for shelter at the little port of Agadir. One night, just before the vessel weighed anchor to leave, Gerald dived into the sea and succeeded in swimming ashore.

His absence was not noticed until three hours later, when the vessel was well out to sea, and Captain Bowden, having lost so much time, did not deem it worth while to bother about a man who was no doubt half a lunatic.

Gerald, however, succeeded, with the aid of a friendly English trader, in getting by road from Agadir to Mogador, where he told his strange story to the British vice-consul, who in turn arranged a passage for him on a small steamer homeward bound, and gave him a little money, sufficient to pay his railway fare from Southampton to London.

Truly, his had been an astounding adventure, and now he was eagerly looking forward to the happy reunion with the girl he loved so passionately.



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