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.

CHAPTER III
THE "GAME" – AND ITS PLAYERS

On the following morning Mr. Emery, the young solicitor, entered Mrs. Morrison's sitting-room at Llandudno with a telegram in his hand.

"I've just had this from the manager of the Universal. They are prepared to do the business and are writing me full particulars. I shall get them by to-morrow morning's post. I've wired to my clerk, Wilson, to post me a proposal form and some other papers."

Emery, his one thought being the big commission upon the business, entered Mrs. Morrison's room twenty-four hours later with a number of papers in his hand.

He sat down with the rich widow, and put before her the proposal form – a paper which had printed upon it a long list of questions, mostly inquisitorial. The bed-rock question of that document was "Who are you, and are you subject to any of the ills that human flesh is heir to?"

Question after question she read, and her answers he wrote down in the space reserved for them. Once or twice she hesitated before replying, but he put down her hesitation to a natural reserve.

The filling up of the form took some time, after which she appended her signature in a bold hand, and this completed the proposal.

"I fear it will be necessary for you to go to London to pass the doctor," he said. "When would that be convenient?"

"Any time after next Wednesday," she replied. "As a matter of fact, I have some shopping to do in town before I return to Scotland, so I can kill two birds with one stone."

"Excellent! They will, of course, make it as easy for you as possible. You will hear from Mr. Gray at the head office. Where shall you stay in town?

"With a friend of mine – a Mrs. Pollen." And she gave him an address in Upper Brook Street which he wrote down.

Before eleven o'clock Mrs. Morrison had dispatched a telegram addressed to "Braybourne, 9b, Pont Street, London," which read:

"All preliminaries settled. Shall be in London end of week.– AUGUSTA MORRISON."

Meanwhile, the solicitor, greatly elated at securing such a remunerative piece of work, sent the completed proposal to the head office of the company in London, and on the following day, accompanied by his wife, returned to his home in Manchester, after what had turned out to be a very profitable as well is beneficial holiday.

Before leaving, Mrs. Morrison arranged that he should carry the whole matter through, her parting injunction being:

"Remember – tell the Company to write to me at Upper Brook Street, and not to Scotland. And always write to me yourself to London."

Now that same evening, after Emery's departure, there arrived at the Beach Hotel, wearing rimless pince-nez, a dark, strongly-built man, well dressed, and with a heavy crocodile suit-case which spoke mutely of wealth. He signed the visitor's form as Pomeroy Graydon, and gave his address as "Carleon Road, Roath, Cardiff, Shipbroker."

He was late, and ate his dinner alone. Afterwards he went out for a stroll on the esplanade in the direction of the Little Orme, when, after walking nearly half a mile, he suddenly encountered the red-haired widow, who was attired plainly in navy blue with a small hat, having evidently changed her dress after dinner.

"Well, Ena!" he exclaimed, lifting his soft felt hat politely. "I'm here, you see! I thought it best to come up and see you. I'm at your hotel as Mr. Graydon of Cardiff."

"I'm awfully glad you've come, Bernie," she said. "I rather expected you."

"As soon as Lilla got your wire I started, and was fortunate to get to Euston just in time for the Irish mail – changed at Chester, and here I am!"

The pair strolled to a convenient seat close to where the waves lazily lapped upon the wall of the esplanade – for the tide was up – and the night a perfect one with a full white moon.

"Everything going well?" asked the smartly dressed man, whose pose in Hammersmith was so entirely different. He spoke in an eager tone.

"Yes, as far as I can see it's all plain sailing. I'm doing my part, and leave you and Lilla to do the rest. I've met here a very nice young fellow – as I intended – a useful solicitor named Emery, of Manchester. He is carrying the matter through for me. He's agent of the Universal."

"A first-class office."

"Well, I'm insuring with them in Lilla's favour."

"Have you carried out the plan we discussed?"

"To the very letter! Trust me, my dear Bernie."

"I always do, Ena," he declared, gazing across the moonlit sea. They were alone on the seat, and there was none to overhear:

"Ten thousand is a decent sum. Let's hope it will be all over soon. I sometimes have bad quarters of an hour – when I think!" he remarked.

"The sums assured have been higher and higher," she said. "We started with five hundred – you recollect the woman Bayliss? – and now we are always in thousands. Only you, Bernard, know how the game should be played. I do my part, but it is your brain which evolves all this business for which the companies are so eager, and which is so wonderful."

"True, our plan works well," Boyne admitted, still gazing over the sea. "We've all of us made thousands out of it – haven't we?"

"Yes. I can see no loophole by which the truth might leak out – save one," she said very seriously.

"And what's that?"'

"Your visits to your wife," was her reply. "Suppose somebody watched you, and saw you leave your frowsy little house in Hammersmith, go to Lilla in Pont Street, and blossom forth into a gentleman of means; it would certainly arouse a nasty suspicion. Therefore you should always be most careful."

"I am. Never fear," he said. "Recollect, nobody in Hammersmith knows that Lilla Braybourne is my wife."

"They don't know. But they might suspect things, which may lead eventually to an awkward inquiry, and then – ?"

"Oh! my dear Ena, don't contemplate unpleasant things!" he urged, with a shrug of the shoulders. "I know you are a clever woman – more clever by far than Lilla herself – therefore I always rely upon your discretion and foresight. Now, tell me – what has happened up to date?"

In reply she told him briefly of her meeting with the young solicitor Emery – which she had prearranged, by the way – and how she had entertained the newly-married pair.

"They, of course, believe you to be Mrs. Augusta Morrison, of Carsphairn, widow of old Joe Morrison, the great shipbuilder of Govan?" he remarked, smiling.

"Exactly. As you know, I paid a visit in secret to Carsphairn six weeks ago, and found out quite a lot. This I retailed to the Emerys, and they took it all in. I described Carsphairn to them, and showed them the snapshots of the place which I took surreptitiously when I was up there. Indeed, I gave a couple of them to Mrs. Emery – to make evidence."

"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "You never leave anything undone, Ena."

"One must be thorough in everything if one desires success."

"And what is your address?"

"I gave it to my own flat in Upper Brook Street – care of Ena Pollen – widow."

"So you will come to London?"

"Yes – I have to go there shopping before I return to Scotland," she replied grimly. "I am staying with Mrs. Pollen."



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