William Le Queux.

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



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Mrs. Braybourne admitted that it was so, and offered her visitor a seat.

"I came this morning from Manchester, in order to consult with your solicitor," he went on. "Mrs. Morrison was a personal friend of mine, and she told me that she had, since her husband's death, discovered that she was indebted to Mr. Braybourne, hence her insurance on the assignment of the policy."

"It came as a great surprise to me," said Lilla, with her innate cleverness. "I had not the pleasure of knowing Mrs. Morrison, though I met her husband several times, years ago. My late husband was a friend of his."

"So she told me when we were together at Llandudno," Emery said. "It was certainly very generous of her to try and make reparation for some wrong which her husband did to Mr. Braybourne. But I confess I am somewhat surprised."

"At what?" asked the pseudo widow.

"Well – she gave me the impression that you were a person of limited means. But that does not appear so," he said, glancing around the luxurious little apartment.

Lilla smiled quite calmly. She was uncertain whether her very unwelcome visitor had recognised Ena through the window as his client, the false Augusta Morrison.

"Of course, I have no idea what Mrs. Morrison told you concerning myself. I only know that my late husband was interested in certain business transactions with Mr. Morrison up in Scotland," she said, with an air of ignorance.

"True, Mrs. Braybourne; but how is it that you have instructed your solicitors here to press a claim of which you now declare you had no knowledge?"

For a second Lilla was cornered; but her quick woman's wit came to her aid, and smiling quite calmly, she said:

"Well, to tell you the truth, a solicitor of Mrs. Morrison in London wrote me quite recently, explaining in strict confidence the position and the efforts your client had made to make reparation for her husband's swindling. All I know is that Mr. Morrison's business morality left a great deal to be desired, and we came very near ruin. Indeed, we should have been ruined, had it not been for assistance I received from my father."

"In what way?" asked the keen young lawyer.

"Well – I think I need not go into such details," said the clever woman with whom he was confronted. "Your client, no doubt, admitted to you her husband's double-dealing and how he very nearly ruined us. It was because of that Mrs. Morrison of Carsphairn insured her life in my favour."

Young Mr. Emery nodded, but his lips curled in a smile of incredulity. He paused for several moments, his gaze fixed upon the woman.

"Well," he said at last, "I have been at the head office of the company to-day, after I found that your legal adviser was absent, and – well, to tell you the truth, they are not altogether satisfied."

"Who?" asked Lilla, in surprise.

"The insurance company."

"Why?"

Again Mr. Emery paused, again he fixed his eyes upon the woman before him.

He slowly rose from his chair and walked to the fireplace, whereupon he drew himself up. Placing his hands in his trousers pockets, he said, in a changed voice:

"Mrs. Braybourne, just because I have interested myself, rather unduly perhaps, in the affairs of my late client, Mrs. Morrison, I find myself confronted by several problems. I want you to assist me to solve at least one of them."

"And what is that?" asked Lilla, quite calmly.

"Simply this," he said, fixing his dark eyes upon her. "I want you to explain the fact why, as I came along the street, I should see, standing here in your window, my late client, Mrs. Augusta Morrison?"

CHAPTER XXIX
ON THIN ICE

Lilla drew herself up, and looked her unwelcome interrogator full in the face with unwavering gaze.

"Mrs. Morrison?" she echoed. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, madam, that as I approached this house Mrs. Morrison was looking out of the window."

Lilla laughed. Though greatly perturbed, she had been forewarned, and preserved an outward calm.

"Really, Mr. Emery," she laughed, "you must be mistaken. I have not the pleasure of knowing Mrs. Morrison. I only knew her husband, who came to see us several times when we lived in Kensington. His wife lived in Scotland, but I was never acquainted with her."

"Do you mean to insist that you have never seen her?"

"Never in my life – to my knowledge," was the frank reply.

"But I insist that my eyes have not deceived me, and that she was in your window a few minutes ago."

Again Lilla laughed.

"Well, Mr. Emery, though you and I have never met before, I can't help thinking that you are – well, just a little eccentric," she said. "You come here and declare that you have seen at my window a woman who is dead."

"Ah, but is she really dead, Mrs. Braybourne?" asked the shrewd young man, who had of late been getting together an extensive legal practice in Manchester.

"My dear Mr. Emery, ask yourself," Lilla replied. "I understand that the poor lady's sister was present at the end and took a last look at her before the coffin was screwed down. Surely her sister would know her? I am, of course, in utter ignorance of the facts, But I think, before you make such foolish mistakes as you are doing, you had better inquire – don't you?"

Her argument was rather disconcerting. Charles Emery felt certain that he had seen the face of the dead woman at the window. Yet, if it were true that her sister had seen her in her coffin, then surely his eyes had deceived him.

Upstairs Boyne and Ena stood together in breathless wonder at what was in progress below. Boyne knew how clever his wife was, and how, when faced with difficulties, she always became so calm and innocent. Of that he had had proof many times. Their marital relations had been such that he had long ago felt she was a super-woman in the art of deception.

But here she was faced with a perilous problem, and both Ena and he knew it.

They stood together, conversing in whispers.

"Trust Lilla," said Boyne in a low voice. "She will wriggle out of anything. Besides, she had the tip that the fellow may have recognised you."

Below the young solicitor and Lilla were still in open hostility.

Emery had grown angry. The woman had accused him of an undue suspicion.

"Lots of people, especially those who are spooky, believe in a sixth sense," she said. "Surely you don't believe in it, do you, Mr. Emery? I do not. Do you really insist that in my window you have seen the face of a woman who is dead and buried? If so – well, you've got the sixth sense, and it would be more profitable to you to go into the Other World Combine – which, I believe, is being formed – than to practise law. Personally, I only wish I had a sixth sense. Oh, what a lot concerning other people's affairs I should know – eh?"

And she laughed lightly, as though highly amused.

Emery stood in silence. She could see that he was still unconvinced. The situation was one of the most perilous they had ever faced.

"To tell you the truth, Mrs. Braybourne, I'm not at all satisfied," said the young man frankly. "I feel confident that the woman's face I saw at your window was that of Mrs. Augusta Morrison."

"How utterly ridiculous!" declared the clever adventuress. "If Mrs. Morrison's sister and other relatives saw her at the nursing home before and after her death they must have recognised her. How therefore, can the lady possibly be alive? It's silly to imagine such a thing!"

"Well," he asked, "who first informed you that the late Mrs. Morrison had assigned her life policy to you?"

"A man I know named May, who was a friend of my husband and of the late Mr. Morrison."

"And how did he know, pray?"

"How can I tell? He knew Mrs. Morrison, I believe, and he used to stay at her house-parties at Carsphairn. Possibly she might have told him."

"When did you see him?"

"I haven't seen him lately," she replied quickly, a fiction ready to her lips. "He rang me up about three days after Mrs. Morrison's death and told me of the sad event, of which I, of course, was in complete ignorance. Then he told me that she had insured her life for my benefit. I asked him how he knew that; but he only laughed and said that he knew, and would send, me particulars of the assignment of the policy, and that I had better take steps at once to establish my claim – which naturally I did, after receiving a few notes of the assignment. I made out a full account of my late husband's dealings with Mr. Morrison – how he had very nearly brought us to ruin – and placed them with the notes of the assignment in the hands of my solicitor, who, I suppose, in due course approached the insurance company. Previously, however, I had heard of the fact from another source – a solicitor – as I have already told you."

"H'm!" Emery grunted. Then, after a pause, he asked:

"Do you happen to know a certain lady living in Upper Brook Street named Mrs. Pollen?"

"Pollen? Pollen?" repeated Lilla. "The name sounds familiar. She's a society hostess – a woman who often has her photograph in the picture papers, isn't she?" she asked, with well-affected ignorance.

"I think not. I've never seen her portrait in the papers. She was, however, a friend of Mrs. Morrison."

"I'm afraid I know nothing of Mrs. Morrison's friends. My husband knew some of them, of course. And I have to thank Morrison for bringing ruin to us. He made huge profits over these business deals and bought Carsphairn, while my husband went under and would have been down and out had it not been for my family, who assisted him on his legs again."

"Well, in any case, you seem to live in very easy circumstances to-day, Mrs. Braybourne," he remarked, glancing around the luxurious room.

"Oh, I don't know," Lilla laughed lightly. "In London we put all the goods in the window – you don't up in Lancashire."

An awkward pause ensued.

"Well, Mrs. Braybourne," he said at last, "I cannot conceal from myself that there are certain peculiar circumstances which must be cleared up."

"About what?" she asked in pretended innocence.

"About this curious claim of yours. The assignment of the policy was, of course, in my hands, and it is not at all clear how your mythical friend Mr. May gained knowledge of what the late Mrs. Morrison desired to keep secret."

"As I've told you, Mr. May gave me particulars regarding it, which I duly handed to my solicitors. If Mrs. Morrison, in a fit of remorse for her husband's sharp practice, as it seems, chose to insure her life for my benefit, I don't see, Mr. Emery, why you should raise any objection," she protested. "She was your client, I presume?"

"She was," he replied. "And because I also acted as agent of the insurance company, I now consider it my duty to put all the facts before them, together with my allegation that the dead woman is actually in this house, or was when I entered here."

"Really, you are most insulting!" declared Lilla with well-feigned indignation. "I think it gross impertinence and a breach of professional etiquette that you should come here to see me and accuse me of lying when the matter is in the hands of my solicitor."

"Ah, Mrs. Braybourne. Pardon me, please; I only wish to straighten things out," he said blandly. "At present they are a little too tangled to suit me," he went on. "When I have given over the facts to the company my responsibility is at an end. Your solicitor returns to London to-morrow, and I will have a consultation, with a view to a settlement – in some way or other," he added in a meaning tone.

Then he bowed coldly and took his departure.

The instant he had left, the trio of dealers in secret death held a hurried and excited council.

"The game is up!" declared Ena, her countenance blanched to the lips. "The Fates are against us. How dare we press our claim further, and if we do not, then our failure to do so is self-condemnation."

"He's a shrewd young chap. He certainly recognised you – curse it!" cried Boyne.

"We must get away," said Lilla. "We all of us have old Jackie James's passports. And it only remains for us to clear out at once."

"Old Jackie's passports" to which she had referred were those cleverly fabricated since the war by an old man named James who lived at Notting Hill Gate, and who had at one time been a notorious forger. He now made a very excellent living by supplying crooks and criminals of all classes with false passports in neat little blue books, on which then photograph was fixed, and he himself embossed it with the stamp bearing the British royal arms and the words "Foreign Office," as well as the rubber date stamp, at an inclusive cost of fifteen pounds each.

These passports were beautifully printed in Bilbao, in Spain, together with the British red sixpenny stamp, but completed ready for the purchaser at Notting Hill Gate.

"Though I never like leaving good money behind," said Boyne, "I must admit that our luck is quite out this time, and we must all lie doggo for a bit."

"Ena must not return to Upper Brook Street, for Emery is certain to go there," Lilla said.

"Curse the fellow!" cried the Red Widow. "It's all my fault! I ought to have exercised more care, but Bernie has always been so cocksure that everything was plain sailing."

"No," he protested. "Surely I can't be accused of your indiscretions, Ena. I've done my best – just as we all have done – but we've fortunately received warning in time that the game is at an end – at least, for a little while. We can resume it in France, or probably in America later on. All that remains now is for us to swiftly and quietly fade out and leave them all guessing."

"One good feature is that the girl Ramsay will not be able to tell them anything," said Lilla. "I've always doubted her from the first. She's a cunning little cat."

"Yes. The end ought to be to-day – or to-morrow at latest," Boyne said.

"And by that time we shall all three be well on our way abroad."

Then they began to discuss ways and means, the destination of each of them, and the matter of money, there being three deposits in different London banks in different names.

The Red Widow and her companions had long ago taken every ingenious precaution in case of enforced flight at a moment's notice. There were, indeed, three separate sets of baggage lying at the waiting-room of Victoria Station. But the banks were closed and no money could be obtained.

In the meantime the young Manchester solicitor, much puzzled, of course, had taken a taxi and alighted in Upper Brook Street.

Of the hall-porter he made inquiry regarding Mrs. Pollen, and was taken up in the lift.

At the door of the flat he rang, and a smart maid answered.

"I want to see Mrs. Pollen," he said with his best smile.

"Mrs. Pollen isn't at home, sir," the girl replied.

"Dear me!" he said, deeply disappointed. "I've come up from the country specially to see her. When will she be back?"

"I don't know. Perhaps not till the evening, sir."

Emery paused. He was arriving at an estimate of the maid's loyalty to her mistress.

"Well," he said, "my business is most important – upon money matters. May I come in and write her a note?"

"Madam has forbidden me to allow anyone inside during her absence," replied the good-looking, dark-eyed girl.

"Of course, she fears thieves. But I'm a solicitor," and he showed her his card. "Please don't think I'm a thief – eh?" and he laughed merrily.

The girl looked at the card and then allowed him in, showing him into the dining-room, upon the table of which was a great bowl of La France roses – the room in which his client, Mrs. Augusta Morrison, had been entrapped and done to death so insidiously.

"There's paper there, I think, sir," she said, indicating a small writing-table set near the window.

He seated himself, though his quick eyes took in all the surroundings.

Before he began to write, he saw in a broad silver frame before him a large photograph of his client, Mrs. Morrison.

"That's a beautiful portrait," he remarked to the girl.

"Yes, sir. Mistress had it done about three months ago. It's very good of her."

Charles Emery bit his lip and managed to stifle the ejaculation which rose to his lips.

The truth was out! It was Ena Pollen whom he had seen at Mrs. Braybourne's window, and Ena Pollen had, he saw, posed for insurance purposes as Mrs. Augusta Morrison – the rich widow of Carsphairn.

For a moment the discovery dumbfounded him. He scribbled a few lines. Then he tore them up, and, making excuse for troubling the maid, he rose and said he would call next day. Then he pressed into her hand a ten-shilling note.

But just before he took his leave, he turned to her in the hall, and asked suddenly:

"Oh, by the way, has Mrs. Morrison been here to visit your mistress lately?"

"Not lately, sir," she answered. "Poor lady, she's dead, so I hear."

"Did she often visit your mistress?"

"Yes, sir. The last time she was here was at a dinner party with Mr. and Mrs. Braybourne."

"Oh! Then Mrs. Braybourne is a friend of your mistress, is she? I know her quite well. She lives in Pont Street, eh?"

"Yes, sir; she's a very great friend," was the girl's reply. "So is Mr. Braybourne."

"And who is Mr. Braybourne?"

"Why, Mrs. Braybourne's husband, of course."

As Emery descended the stairs to the street he wondered who could be "Mr. Braybourne" – if Mrs. Braybourne was a widow, as alleged.

At the end of the street he hailed a taxi and returned at once to the head office of the insurance company, where he revealed certain other suspicions which had arisen in his mind after his interview with Mrs. Braybourne.

CHAPTER XXX
THROUGH THE DARKNESS

Events happened apace.

The criminal dovecot in Pont Street was now seriously disturbed.

Even Boyne, usually so calm and unruffled in face of any peril or difficulty, saw that matters had grown very serious. He was in complete ignorance of the return of Gerald Durrant. Nor did he know that at Wimbledon Park the doctor, on calling again late that afternoon, had pronounced that the serum was doing its work, and that Marigold was decidedly better.

It had been just a toss-up. According to his judgment, the serum injected to fight the germs of disease had been administered a few hours too late. The human machine is, however, a curious thing, and the throw of the dice with Death is always weighted upon the side of the living.

Gerald, pale, anxious, and emaciated after all the hardships he had gone through, sat by the bedside of his well-beloved, watching her eagerly.

To his delight, she was slowly recovering. It is one of the features of the malady from which Marigold was suffering – thanks to the brutal plot to kill her – that after a certain fixed period, death supervenes or recovery comes very quickly.

In her case the doctor himself was agreeably surprised. She was recovering, he had said! She would yet live to cheat her enemies!

Gerald, realising this, was in the seventh heaven of delight. He was, of course, in ignorance of what had transpired at Pont Street, or of the suspicion of Charles Emery, the man who had made the actual assignment of Mrs. Morrison's insurance.

On the following morning, after hearing the doctor's good news, he sat beside Marigold's bed, and by slow degrees the girl recognised her lover as he bent over her and tenderly kissed her upon the brow.

The light of recognition suddenly shone in her eyes, and smiling, she gripped his hand.

"Yes, darling, I am home again!" he said in a soft voice. "Home – to find that you are getting better. You've been very ill. But you'll soon be well again, thank God!"

For some moments the girl was too overcome by emotion to speak, but at last her lips moved, and in a voice scarcely audible she pronounced his name.

"Gerald!" she articulated with difficulty, raising her hand until it rested against his cheek. "Gerald! My Gerald!"

"Yes, darling! I am here with you!" he assured her soothingly, for they were alone together, the doctor having just left. "You have been very, very ill."

"Yes," she whispered, "very ill."

Then she closed her eyes for fully five minutes, as though the strain of speaking had been too much for her, while he sat at her bedside watching breathlessly the white countenance of the girl who was all in all to him.

At last she again opened her eyes, and in a voice scarce above a whisper, asked:

"Where have you been all this long, long time?"

"Abroad, dear. But don't worry about that! I'm back," he said cheerfully. "Back with you. Rest, and you will soon be quite well again."

Again she closed her eyes and turned her head slightly upon the pillow. And as she did this, Gerald again kissed her upon the brow.

About two hours later her condition showed a marked improvement, but Gerald had not left her side for a moment.

At noon she seemed so much better that he decided to go over to Ealing and obtain a suit of his own clothes, so as to make himself more presentable. This he did.

His sister was naturally delighted to see him, but save for a brief explanation of his absence he did not enter into any details concerning it. His anxiety was to return to Wimbledon Park. He had at first contemplated going to Mincing Lane to explain his absence, but had now decided to postpone that until the morrow.



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