William Le Queux.
The Red Widow: or, The Death-Dealers of London
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Husband and wife lived apart. They did so for a purpose. Bernard was a hard-working insurance agent, a strict Churchman, perfectly upright and honest, though he lived his struggling life in Hammersmith. Truly, the m?nage in Pont Street was both unusual and curious. Boyne, known to the servants as Mr. Braybourne, was very often away for weeks at a time. Then suddenly he would return and spend a week with his wife, being absent, however, all day. Neither dear old Mrs. Felmore nor all his wide circle of Hammersmith friends ever dreamed that he kept up another establishment in one of the best streets in London, a thoroughfare where a few doors away on either side were the legations of certain important European States.
"My dear Lilla, we can't be too careful," he said, with a kindly smile. "Our business is a very ticklish one. Ena agrees with me that Annette, your maid, has picked up too much English, and in consequence is a danger."
"Rubbish, my clear old Bernard!" laughed the handsome woman, upon whose fingers sparkled several valuable rings. "All that we need is to exercise due discretion."
"I know. When the game is crooked one has to be all the more careful."
"You don't seem to be in the sweetest of tempers to-night," remarked his wife, rather piqued. His visit was unexpected, and to her it portended unpleasantness. Not because discord ever existed between them. On the contrary, they were bound together by certain secrets which neither one nor the other dared to disclose. Lilla Boyne feared her husband to exactly the same extent that he feared her.
In that house in Pont Street, Mr. Boyne kept his well-cut suits, his evening clothes, his opera hat, and his expensive suit-case marked "B.B.," for on entry there he at once effaced his identity as the humble insurance agent, and became Bernard Braybourne, a man of means, and husband of the good-looking woman who in the course of five or six years had been taken up by quite a number of well-known people.
"I didn't expect you to-night," she remarked rather wearily. "I thought you'd have been here yesterday."
"I couldn't come. Sorry!" he replied.
"To-night I went to dine at Lady Betty's. You accepted, you know. So I apologised and said you had been called suddenly to Leeds last night," she said. "That idea of your candidature at Leeds at the next election works famously. You have to go and meet your committee, I tell them, and it always satisfies the curious. All of them hope you'll get in at the by-election when old Sammie dies, as he must very soon. They say the doctors have only given him three months more."
"Then before that date I'll have to retire from the contest," remarked her husband, with a grin.
"Oh! I'll watch that for you all right. Have you got that cheque?"
"Yes – to-day. It came from my new solicitor – seven thousand, eight hundred!"
"Good! I'm glad they've paid up. I began to fear that there might be some little hitch.They were so long-winded."
"So did I, to tell you the truth. But it's all right, and the new lawyer, a smart young fellow in the City, suspects nothing. I've already sent him his fee – so that's settled him."
"Will you employ him again?"
"I never employ a solicitor a second time, my dear Lilla. That would be a fatal mistake," was his reply. "But what I came to tell you mainly is that I've had a failure – a mysterious failure! Things haven't turned out exactly as I expected they would."
"Failure!" gasped the woman, with disappointment upon her dark, handsome face. "Then we must postpone it? How annoying!"
"Yes. But perhaps it's all for the best, Lilla. There was an element of danger. I told you that from the first."
"Danger! Rubbish!" declared his wife, with boldness, the diamonds flashing upon her fingers. "There's no danger! Of that I'm quite convinced. There was much more in that other little affair last winter. I was full of apprehension then – though I never told you of it."
"Well, at any rate, I haven't succeeded in the little business I've been attempting this last fortnight, so we'll have to postpone it."
"Perhaps your failure is due to the presence of your deaf old lady in the house," laughed his wife. "I passed the place in the car about a fortnight ago. Ugh! What a house!" and she shuddered.
"Yes, you might say so if you lived there and ate Mrs. Felmore's cold sausage for your supper, as I have to-night. Yet it must be done. If one makes money one has to make some sacrifice, especially if the money is made – well, not exactly on the square, shall we say?" And he grinned.
* * * * *
Away in North Wales three days later.
A beautiful moonlit evening by the Irish Sea. Over the Great Orme the moon shone brilliantly across the calm waters lazily lapping the bay of Llandudno, which was filled at the moment with an overflowing crowd of holiday folk, mostly from Yorkshire and Lancashire.
All the hotels and boarding houses were crowded out, and there were stories of belated trippers, many of whom were on their first seaside holiday after the stress of war, being compelled to sleep in bathing machines.
The lamps along the promenade were all aglow, the pier blazed with light, and across the bay came the strains of the orchestra playing selections from the latest revue.
In the big lounge of the Beach Hotel, which faces the sea in the centre of the bay, sat a well-preserved, middle-aged woman in a striking black dinner gown, trimmed with jade-coloured ninon, and wearing a beautiful jade bangle and ear-rings to match. The visitor, whose hair was remarkable because of its bright chestnut hue – almost red, indeed – had been there for three weeks. She was a widow, a Mrs. Augusta Morrison, hailing from Carsphairn, in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, whose late husband had great interests in a big shipbuilding works at Govan.
Of rather loud type, as befitted the widow of a Scotch shipbuilder who had commenced life in the shipyard, she dressed extravagantly, greatly to the envy of the bejewelled wives of a few Lancashire war millionaires, who, unable to gain admittance to that little piece of paradise, the Oakwood Park Hotel, beyond Conway, were compelled to mix with the holiday crowd on the seashore of Llandudno.
The hotel lounge was at the moment almost empty, for most of the visitors were either on the pier or had gone out for a stroll in the moonlight. But Mrs. Morrison sat near the door chatting with Charles Emery, a young Manchester solicitor who had only been married since he had been demobilised six months before, and who had come to Llandudno with his wife, as is the custom of young married folk of Lancashire.
Once or twice the rich widow – who had hired a car for her stay in North Wales – had invited Emery and his wife to go for runs with her to Bangor, and across the Menai Bridge to Holyhead, or to Carnarvon, Bettws-y-coed, St. Asaph, and other places. From time to time she had told them of her loneliness in her big country house in one of the wildest districts in Scotland, and her intention to go abroad that winter – probably to Italy.
"My wife has gone to the theatre with Mr. and Mrs. Challoner," Emery was saying, as he lazily smoked his cigarette. "I had some letters to write – business letters that came from the office this morning – so I stayed in."
"Have you finished them?" asked the handsome widow, whose hair was always so remarked, and her eyes large and luminous.
"Yes," he replied. "I suppose I shall soon have to be back in harness again in Deansgate. But we shall both cherish the fondest memories of your great kindness to us, Mrs. Morrison."
"It's really nothing, I assure you," laughed the widow merrily. "You have taken compassion upon me in my horribly lonely life, and I much appreciate it. Ah!" she sighed. "You can never imagine how lonely a woman can be who goes about the world aimlessly, as I go about. I travel here and there, sometimes on trips abroad, by sea, or by rail, often to the south of Europe, but I make no friends. Possibly it is my own fault. I may be too exclusive. And yet I never wish to be."
"I really don't think that!" he said gallantly. "At any rate, you've given us both a real ripping time!"
"I'm so glad you've enjoyed the little runs. But not more, I'm sure, than I have myself. I cannot live without movement. I love crowds. That's why I love cities – Manchester, London, Paris, and Rome. Where I live, up in Kirkcudbrightshire, it is one of the wildest and least explored districts of Great Britain. Between Loch Ken and Loch Doon, over the Cairnsmuir, the people are the most rural in all our island, quiet, honest folk, with no soul above their sheep and their cows. You and your wife must come north one day to Carsphairn and stay with me."
"I'm sure we should both be only too delighted to accept your hospitality, Mrs. Morrison," he said. "I'm afraid we can never repay you for your kindness to us. We are leaving next Monday."
"Oh, you have four more days! I'm motoring to Bettws-y-coed again to-morrow. You must both come with me, and we'll lunch at the Waterloo, as we did before. There has been rain these last few days, and the Swallow Falls will no doubt be grand."
And so it was arranged.
Next day all three went in the car up the beautiful valley of the Conway, with the wild hills on either side, through Eglwys Bach and Llanrwst, past Gwydyr Castle, and on by the Falcon Rock to that gem of North Wales, Bettws-y-coed.
To Mrs. Emery the widow was exceedingly amiable, and the day passed most pleasantly.
As they were motoring back through the mountains, purple in the sunset, between Capel Curig and Bangor, the widow, turning to Emery, suddenly said:
"I wonder, Mr. Emery, if you would advise me upon a little point of business? I'm rather perturbed, and I would so much like your professional advice. Can I see you after dinner to-night?"
"Most certainly," was his reply. "Any advice I can give you I will do so to the best of my ability," said the sharp young lawyer, well pleased at the prospect of a wealthy client.
That night at dinner Mrs. Morrison, radiant and handsome, wore a striking gown of black-and-gold, with a gold band in her red hair, and her string of fine pearls. In the big white-and-gold dining-room she was the most remarked of all the women there, but she pretended to take no notice of the sensation caused by her entrance into the room. Yet that gown had cost her sixty guineas in Dover Street, and, in secret, she was amused at the excitement its appearance had caused among the moneyed folk of Lancashire-by-the-Sea, who, after all, be it said, are honest people and who are more thorough than the shallow "Society" of post-war London.
After dinner, while Mrs. Emery went into the lounge and joined a woman and her daughter whom she knew, her husband went to Mrs. Morrison's sitting-room, where he found coffee awaiting him.
She produced a big silver box of cigarettes, and when she had served him with coffee and liqueur she lit a cigarette and settled herself to talk.
"The fact, Mr. Emery, is this," the woman with the wonderful hair commenced, when he had seated himself. "My late husband was a shipbuilder at Govan. Only recently I discovered that some twenty years ago he was guilty of some sharp practice in a financial deal which, while he and his friends enriched themselves, a man named Braybourne and his wife were both ruined. Braybourne died recently, but his widow is living in London. Now knowledge of this affair has greatly upset me, for I had the greatest faith in my dear husband's honesty."
"Naturally," remarked the young lawyer. "The knowledge of such a stigma attaching to his name must grieve you."
"Exactly. And I want somehow to make reparation. Not while I am alive – but after my death," she said. "I have been wondering what course would be best to pursue. I don't know Mrs. Braybourne, and probably she is in ignorance of my existence. Yet I should much like to do something in order to relieve my conscience. What would you advise?"
The young solicitor was silent for a few moments. At last he replied:
"Well, there are several courses open. You could make her an anonymous gift. But that would be difficult, for with a little inquiry she could discover the source of the payment."
"Ah! I don't want her to know anything!"
"I quite agree with that. You could, of course, make a will in her favour – leave her a legacy."
Mrs. Morrison remained silent for a while.
"Yes," she said at last, "that would be a way of easing my conscience regarding my husband's offence."
"Or, another way, you could insure your life in her favour. Then, at your death, she would receive the money unexpectedly," he suggested.
"That's rather a brilliant suggestion, Mr. Emery!" she replied eagerly. "But I know nothing about insurance matters. How can I do it? What have I to do and where shall I go to insure?"
"Well, Mrs. Morrison, I happen to be agent for a first-class life assurance company, the Universal, whose head offices are in Cornhill, London. If you so desire, I would be very happy to place a proposal before them," he said enthusiastically, for it meant a very substantial commission.
"I shall be very glad indeed, Mr. Emery, if you can carry the business through for me."
"With the utmost pleasure," was the young man's reply. "Er – what amount do you propose?"
"Oh! I hardly know. Some really substantial sum, I think. My husband, I have learned, got some twenty thousand pounds out of Mr. Braybourne. At least I would like to give her back half that sum."
"Ten thousand! How extremely generous of you, Mrs. Morrison. Of course, it's a large sum, and will mean a special premium, but no doubt the company will, providing you pass the medical test, issue the policy."
She thanked him for his promise to take up the matter for her. Then he went down to the writing-room to pen a letter to the Universal Assurance Company, while the handsome red-haired widow passed along the lounge and, with her merry chatter, rejoined his wife.