William Le Queux.

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



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All his belongings were in the small brown paper parcel on the rack above him. At the station he had bought a packet of cigarettes, and as he smoked he gazed reflectively out of the carriage window. The train was an express, but in his mood it seemed to be the slowest in the world.

What would Marigold think of his long absence? He had once or twice thought of telegraphing to her from Mogador, or from Brest, where they had touched, but he had deemed it best to return to her suddenly and then wreak vengeance upon those who had so cleverly plotted to inveigle him to that flat on that never-to-be-forgotten night.

Waterloo – the new station with its bustle and hurry! He sprang from the carriage and took the next train back to Wimbledon and then on to Wimbledon Park.

At last he halted before the neat little villa with its white painted balcony, and knocked.

Marigold's sister opened the door.

"Good heavens!" she gasped. "Mr. Durrant, is it really you?"

"It is! I'm back again. Where is Marigold?"

"Come in," she said. "I-I-hardly know what to say. Marigold is – she's not very well."

And then in a few brief words as he stood in the narrow hall she told him of his beloved's sudden illness.

A second later he dashed upstairs, and then in silence, treading, noiselessly, he advanced to the bedside of the delirious girl, who with flushed face was calling for "her Gerald."

Tenderly he placed his cool hand upon her brow.

"But surely she will live!" he cried in blank despair.

"The doctor has grave doubts," her sister replied. "She had such deep and constant anxiety regarding your absence, Mr. Durrant, that her constitution has become undermined. And now she has caught this terrible chill which has developed into acute pneumonia."

"But people get over pneumonia!" he exclaimed. "Surely Marigold will recover."

"The doctor told me this morning that the malady is of the most virulent type. There are few recoveries."

"Few recoveries!" he echoed, while at the same time the poor girl was murmuring something incoherent regarding "Gerald."

"Yes. He said that if she got well again it could be only by a miracle. The serum might do its work, but – well, Mr. Durrant, I must tell you what he really said – he told me that he regarded the case as hopeless. The crisis will be the day after to-morrow."

"The day after to-morrow," he said. "And she will not recognise me till then!"

All that the poor fellow had been through – the tortures and horrors of that bondage in which everyone believed him to be mentally irresponsible – were as nothing. He loved Marigold Ramsay with the whole strength of his gallant manhood. His soul was hers. They were soul-mates, and yet she was slowly slipping away from him just at the moment of his return and his intended triumph.

Her sister led him downstairs. In the modest, well-kept little dining-room below they had a further conversation.

"She was, of course, from time to time reassured by your telegrams.

By them she knew that you were alive. And they renewed her hope that you would return."

"Telegrams!" echoed the man, who looked more like an unkempt tramp than a business man. "I sent no telegrams! What do you mean, Mrs. Baynard?"

"Why, the messages you sent. She has them all in her handbag."

"But I was unable to communicate with her. I was declared to be mad, and was sent upon a sea voyage for the benefit of my health. I now know that it was for the benefit of Bernard Boyne!"

"I'll get her bag and show you. Marigold has kept them all," her sister said, and she left the room for a few moments, returning with the dying girl's black silk vanity bag, from which she drew several telegrams carefully folded.

These he opened and examined, standing aghast as he read them.

"Why! I never sent a single one of them!" he said. "They're all forgeries!"

"What?" cried Marigold's sister and Hetty in one breath – for her sister-in-law had entered the room and greeted the man who had returned.

"I tell you I never sent any message to her," he said. "Somebody has done this. Who?"

"Who can it be?" asked Hetty.

"I think I know," replied Gerald in a hard voice. "If I am not mistaken my enemies have been revenged upon me."

"Enemies! What enemies?" asked Marigold's sister. "Surely you have no enemies. I'm sure Marigold hasn't."

"Wait and we shall discover the truth," said the young man. "Marigold must get well. I have certain questions to put to her. She can tell us much that is still mysterious concerning Mr. Boyne."

Hetty looked him full in the face and said:

"Jack, my husband, was over at Hammersmith two days ago. The place is all boarded up."

"What place?"

"Mr. Boyne's house in Bridge Place. There's been a fire there, and all the upper part has been burned out. Marigold was staying with her aunt that night, and they both escaped just in the nick of time."

"Repeat that," he said, half dazed.

Hetty repeated what she had said.

"Ah! So the place has been burnt up, has it? That's more than curious, isn't it?"

"Why?"

"Because of the mystery surrounding that man Boyne," he said.

"Marigold ten days ago said that she didn't believe that Mr. Boyne was as honest and sincere as people believed, but really, I have never taken any notice of her suspicions. We all of us suspect one of our friends."

"Marigold spoke the truth! I agree entirely with her. There are certain facts – facts which I have established – which show that this man Boyne – most modest of men – is an adventurer of a new and very extraordinary type. He is engaged in some game that is very sly, and by which he somehow enriches himself by very considerable sums."

Gerald Durrant an hour later went up to Waterloo and on to Hammersmith, where in the evening he stood before the boarded-up ruins of the fire. He saw that the top floor had been destroyed.

"So the secret of that top room has been wiped out," he remarked to himself. "Why? Did Boyne suspect us of prying? If he did, then what more likely than he should put his slow, but far-reaching, fingers upon us both. That I should have been drugged and placed on board a ship bound for the other side of the world, and branded as a semi-lunatic, is only what one might expect of such a master-brain!"

At a public-house in King Street, a few doors from the end of Bridge Place, he got into conversation with the landlord, who told him of the events of that night when the house caught fire.

"It's an awful thing for poor old Boyne," he added. "Although he is an insurance agent, it seems that, though he insured other people, he never insured himself. So he's ruined – so he told Mr. Dale, the corndealer in Chiswick High Road, a week ago."

Gerald smiled but said nothing. His thoughts were upon the hooded recluse who lived on the top floor of that dingy house. What could have been the real secret of that obscure abode?

A few other inquiries led him to the sombre house with smoke-grimed curtains where deaf old Mrs. Felmore had taken refuge, a few doors from the smoke-blackened, half-destroyed house.

As he sat with the old woman he spoke to her with difficulty, moving his lips slowly.

"Yes," replied the old woman in her high-pitched voice, for all the deaf speak loudly. "It is all very curious – most curious! They've never found out how it caught fire."

From Bridge Place Gerald walked direct to the Hammersmith police-station and, demanding to see someone in authority, was ushered upstairs to that same room into which Marigold had been shown, and there sat the same detective-inspector, rosy-faced, quiet and affable.

He listened to the roughly-clad young man's story, until presently he said:

"Oh, you are Gerald Durrant, are you?"

"Yes," was his visitor's astonished reply. "Why?"

"Well, we had a young lady inquiring about you a little while ago. She said you were missing, and asked us to make inquiry. But as you had wired to her several times we considered that you had gone off on your own account."

"Was Marigold here?" he asked, surprised.

"Yes, she came one night and told us of your disappearance. Where have you been?"

"Abroad. I only returned to-day."

"That's what I told the young lady. You promised in your telegrams to come back."

"But I never sent any telegrams; they were all forged."

The detective regarded him steadily and with an air of doubt.

"Then why did you go away? What was your motive in frightening the poor girl?" he asked.

"I went involuntarily. I – well, I suppose I must have been drugged and put on board a ship at Hull."

"H'm! What ship?"

Gerald gave the name of the ship and of its captain, which the detective scribbled down.

"Yes. You'd better tell me the whole of your story. It seems rather a curious one."

"It is," declared Durrant, and he proceeded to describe what happened on that fateful night when he met the two ladies in distress outside Kensington Gardens.

The detective listened attentively, but noting Gerald's unkempt appearance and rough dress, together with his excited manner, he came to the conclusion that what he was relating was a mere exaggerated tale concocted with some ulterior motive, which to him was not apparent.

At last, when Durrant began to describe Bernard Boyne's strange doings in Bridge Place, the inspector interrupted him.

"The house has been burned, as I dare say you know."

"Yes," replied Gerald vehemently, "purposely burned for two reasons. First, to destroy evidence of whatever was contained in that upstairs room, together with its occupant – "

"Then you think someone lived up there – eh?"

"I feel absolutely sure of it."

"You only believe it," said the officer. And after a pause he asked: "And what was the second motive?"

"To get rid of Miss Ramsay – for that night, after visiting you, she went back and slept there in order to keep her aunt company."

The detective smiled. Then, after a pause, he said:

"Mr. Boyne is very well-known and popular in Hammersmith, you know. Everyone has a good word for him. He is honest, hard-working, and often shows great kindness to poor people whose insurance policies would lapse if he did not help them over the stile. No, Mr. Durrant; Bernard Boyne is certainly not the daring and relentless criminal you are trying to make him out. Indeed, I hear that, by the fire at his house, he's lost nearly all he possessed. He wasn't insured."

"Why is it that by day he collects insurance premiums here, and yet at night puts on an evening suit and dines at the most expensive restaurants in the West End?" demanded Gerald, furious that his story was being dismissed by the police.

"Ah! He may have some motive. Many men who earn their money in a hard manner by day go into the West End at night dressed as gentlemen. He may have some motive. He may have some rich clients, for all we know."

"I see you are dubious of the whole affair!" exclaimed Gerald. "I've only come here to tell you what I know."

"And I thank you for coming," replied the detective. "But we cannot act upon your mere suspicions. You must bring us something more tangible than that before we institute inquiries. I regret it," he added; "but we cannot help you. If you had any direct evidence of incendiarism it would be different."

And, thus dismissed, Gerald Durrant descended the stairs with heavy heart and hopeless foreboding, and walking out, made his way back to Wimbledon Park, where Marigold lay dying.

CHAPTER XXVIII
AT THE WINDOW

On that same afternoon the Red Widow was seated with Boyne in Lilla's pretty drawing-room in Pont Street.

She had come there hurriedly in response to a telephone message from Boyne's wife, and they were now holding a council of war to decide upon their actions in future.

"The only danger that can possibly threaten us is that infernal French girl and her lover," Boyne assured them, as he leaned back lazily in a silken easy chair, and puffed at his cigarette. He was smartly dressed with a white slip in his waistcoat, fawn spats, and patent leather shoes. "At the present moment they hold their tongues in the hope of squeezing more money from us. Meanwhile we shall collect the sum assured upon dear Augusta, and quietly leave England for a little while. A pity the sum is not larger," he added.

"I was only thinking the same the other day," said Ena. "But how about that girl Ramsay?"

"Oh, the end ought to be to-day, or at least to-morrow. I've made secret inquiries in Wimbledon Park, and I hear that the doctor gave her up a day or so ago," he said grimly.

"That will be another distinct peril removed," remarked Lilla. "It serves the girl right for being too inquisitive."

"And the man Durrant cannot be back yet, eh?" asked Ena.

"No," was Boyne's reply. "I see by the papers that the ship has arrived at Cape Town. Even if he escaped there, and found his way back, he could not arrive in London for another three weeks or more. So when he does return – if he ever does – he will find Marigold silent in her grave, that a disaster has occurred in Bridge Place, and that we are no longer in London."

"And Lionel?" asked the Red Widow.

"Oh, we have nothing to fear from him. He's only a gibbering idiot who believes my story that he committed a crime – killed a little girl named Maggie – although he was quite innocent. I made him wear a hood whenever he saw me, and I did the same. He believed me to be a man named Wisden, the witness of his crime! And because of that he executed in blind obedience every order I gave him. The fact that for months he never saw my face impressed him, and thus the terror of the police has so got upon his unstrung nerves that he is fast going from bad to worse. As a bacteriologist he is, of course, wonderful. He was marked out as a coming man by the professors at the Laboratory at Oxford, before he took to drugs and his brain gave way."

"Where is he now?" asked Ena.

Boyne explained the man's hiding-place, adding: "I've given him money to go on with. When that is finished – well, we will consider what we shall do."

"We shall want him again, no doubt," laughed Ena.

"Probably," said Boyne. "But remember, if there are any awkward inquiries – as there may be if we can't settle completely with C?line – then we must be absent from London for a year or two."

"That's a pity," declared the Red Widow. "Recollect what I said regarding that woman Vesey, whose hair is almost similar to mine. I met her at Brighton some time ago, and we became very chummy. She has a place in Gloucestershire. And that other woman Sampson. Both affairs would be so easy – ten thousand each."

"I know, my dear Ena, but let us square up this present deal first. That solicitor in the City is horribly slow. He is out of town till to-morrow. Time is going on. Each day brings us nearer open hostilities with C?line, therefore I suggest that Lilla should remain to receive the money and settle up, while you and I get away. I propose going to Spain, and you – well, you know Sweden well. Why not slip over to Stockholm? We will all meet again, say, at Trouville in six weeks' time, and hold another consultation," suggested the man.

"Yes," Lilla said. "That's all very well. But it means that I'm to be left alone to face C?line!"

"Well, it's the only way," declared her husband. "It is not wise for all of us to await the payment. I agree that the solicitor might easily have obtained a settlement of the claim ere this – especially as it is not disputed. But the more respectable the solicitor the slower he is."

"Are you sure that the fire at Bridge Place has aroused no suspicion?" asked Ena. "After a fire there's always an inquiry as to how it originated."

"Yes, when the place is insured. But mine was not – intentionally," Boyne replied, with a grin. "We couldn't afford that upstairs laboratory to be discovered. Besides, there was enough stuff in the tubes to kill a whole town – all sorts of infectious diseases, from anthrax to bubonic plague. Lionel dabbled with them, and gleefully cultivated them with his broth and his trays and tubes of gelatine."

"Well, as long as you are quite certain we are not watched, I don't care," said the handsome woman, who was so often seen at table at the Ritz, the Carlton, and the Berkeley. "If we were, it would be most dangerous to meet, even as we are doing now."

"Bah! You are both growing very nervy!" laughed Boyne derisively. "It is so foolish. Nothing serious can happen. Even when the French girl grows greedy, we can always settle with her. Between us we have laid up a nice little nest-egg for the future. I reckoned it out yesterday. The game is one of the few which is worth the candle."

"And the people in their graves are better off!" laughed Lilla, who was utterly heartless and unscrupulous.

Boyne rose and obtained a fresh cigarette, while his wife rang the bell for tea.

The latter was brought in upon a fine old Sheffield plate tray, and Lilla poured it out.

When the man-servant had gone, the Red Widow, turning to Boyne's wife, said:

"I really think, Lilla, after what Bernie has suggested, that I shall plead illness and get away. I shall tell my friends I am going to Sicily, but instead I shall run over to Stockholm. I know lots of friends there. Indeed, we might carry on our affairs there later. The Scandinavian is a good insurance company."

"English companies are better," Boyne declared. "I have little faith in foreign insurance companies. They always want to know just a little too much to suit our purpose. I've studied them all. My first case was in Milan eight years ago, and it nearly ended in disaster. I had to clear out suddenly and leave my claim – which has never been paid. And I wasn't clumsy, I assure you. I got the stuff from old 'Grandfather' of Frankfurt."

"Oh! 'Grandfather.' I've heard his name before," said Ena. "He sells tubes, doesn't he?"

"Sells them! Of course he did – and still does. You have to be well introduced, and he charges you very high, but his stuff is first-class – quite as good as Lionel's. 'Grandfather' I met once in the Adlon, in Berlin – a funny old professor with long hair. But, by Jove! he must have made a big fortune by this time. He charged a hundred pounds for a single tube of anthrax, sleeping sickness, or virulent pneumonia – and double for a certain poison which creates all the post-mortem symptoms of heart-disease, and cannot be detected."

"Well now?" asked Lilla, sipping her tea from the pretty Crown Derby cup. "What are we to do?"

"As Bernie suggests, I think," said Ena. "I'll get away, and next day Bernie can go to Paris, and on by the Sud Express to Madrid."

"Then on to Barcelona," said Boyne. "I'm known there as Mr. Bennett. I've stayed once or twice at the H?tel Colon."

"No. I really can't be left alone," said Lilla. "As soon as you have gone that girl C?line will call."

"Don't see her, dear," urged the Red Widow.

"Oh! That's all very well, but I can't be out each time she comes. I should be compelled to see her. And no doubt she would have the man with her. Then, when she found out that you had both gone, she would turn upon me."

"No, no," laughed Boyne. "You will have money ready to give her if she turns very hostile, so as to afford us further time. Their only game is blackmail. They suspect something concerning the old man at Chiswick – thanks to talking too loud in the presence of one's servants. It ought to be a lesson to us all."

"It is, Bernie," said the Red Widow, rising from her chair and crossing the room to get her handbag which she had left on the sofa by the window.

As she took it up, she chanced to glance out into the street.

"My God!" she gasped. And next second she sprang from the window. Her face was white as paper. "My God!" she repeated, reeling, and steadying herself by the back of a chair.

"What's happened?" asked Boyne, springing up.

"No, no! For Heaven's sake, don't go near the window. He has seen me – I'm sure he recognised me!"

"Who?"

"Emery – that solicitor in Manchester! He – he – knows me as – as Augusta Morrison – the dead woman!"

"And did he see you?" cried Boyne in a low, hoarse voice. "Are you certain?"

"Well – no – I – I'm not absolutely certain. He was looking up at the house, and he's coming here."

At that second the front door electric bell rang.

All three started.

"Why is he here?" asked Lilla. "Are inquiries already on foot?"

"If they are, then our game is up," declared Ena. "You must receive him, Lilla, but you must deny all knowledge of me. You know nothing of Augusta Morrison."

"But he may call at Upper Brook Street," said Boyne quickly. "You must not return there."

"Did he recognise me? That's the question," asked Ena, still pale to the lips.

A second later the man entered with a card upon his salver – the card of the Manchester solicitor, Mr. Emery.

"Oh!" exclaimed Lilla, taking it up. "Oh, yes – show him up."

Then as soon as the man had left, Ena slipped upstairs into one of the bedrooms to hide, in company with Bernard Boyne.

When the young Manchester solicitor was ushered in, he found the tea-things cleared – which had been effected several minutes before – and Lilla rose to greet him.

"I believe you are Mrs. Braybourne," he said, bowing. "My name is Emery. I am the solicitor who effected a policy on the life of the late Mrs. Augusta Morrison in your favour. My client, I hear, with much regret, has died, and I understand from the company that you have put in your claim."



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