William Le Queux.

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



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"Good! It will be far the best for their London doctors to examine you. If you were examined up here they might resist the claim. If they did that – well, it would open up the whole business, and we certainly can't afford to arouse the very least little bit of doubt."

"Hardly," she laughed. "Well, I've played the game properly, my dear Bernie. My name is Morrison, and I am the widow of old Joe Morrison, the woman with the red hair, and I live at Carsphairn, Kirkcudbrightshire, the fine sporting estate left me by my late husband. All that is upon the records of the Universal Life Assurance Corporation."

"Excellent! You've established an undeniable identity – red hair and everything!" he said, again gazing reflectively out across the rippling waters. "You have taken the first step."

"The second move is that Mrs. Morrison goes to London on a shopping visit, prior to going abroad," the widow said.

"Really, you are marvellous, Ena!" declared the humble insurance agent of Hammersmith. "Your foresight always carries you to success."

"In a number of cases it has done so, I admit," the woman laughed. "When one's identity is not exactly as one represents, one has to have one's eyes skinned day and night. Men – even the shrewdest lawyers – are always easily gulled. Why? Because of the rapacious maws the legal profession have for fees. Women are always dangerous, for they are too frequently jealous of either good looks or pretty frocks. A man I can usually manage – a woman, seldom, unless she is in love. Then I side with her in her love affair and so gain her confidence."

"Ena, I repeat I hold you in admiration as one of the cleverest women I have ever known. Nothing deters you – nothing perturbs you! You fix a plan, and you carry it through in your own way – always with profit to our little combination."

"And very substantial profit, I venture to think, eh?"

"I agree," he said, with a grim laugh.

"All thanks to you, my dear Bernie," the red-haired woman said. "But really I am growing just a little apprehensive. Why – I don't know, I cannot tell. But somehow I fear we may play the game once too often. And what then – eh?"

"Funnily enough, I've experienced the same curiously apprehensive feeling of late," he said. "I always try, of course, to crush it out, just as I crush out any other little pricks of conscience which occur to me when I awake in the mornings."

"Very strange that we should both of us entertain apprehensive feelings!" she remarked very thoughtfully. "I hope it's no ill omen! Do you think it is?"

"No," he laughed. "Don't let us seek trouble – for Heaven's sake. At present there is not the slightest danger. Of that I feel confident. Let us go forward. When shall you go up to London?"

"To-morrow. I go to visit my dear friend, Mrs. Pollen – as I have told you."

He laughed.

"So really you are going on a visit to yourself – eh? Excellent! Really you are unique, Ena!"

"Well – it is the only way, and it will work well."

Then the strange pair, who were upon such intimate terms, rose and strolled leisurely side by side back towards the opposite end of the promenade, chatting merrily the while.

When approaching the Beach Hotel they halted, and the woman bade the man good-bye.

Afterwards he sank upon a seat in one of the shelters, while she walked on and entered the hotel.

Not until half an hour later, after he had taken a stroll along to the end of the pier, where the band was still playing, did he return to the hotel. Mrs. Morrison was at the moment sitting in the lounge chatting with two men visitors. The eyes of the pair met as he passed, but neither gave any sign of recognition.

To those in the lounge the two were absolutely strangers to each other.

Little did the other visitors dream of the dastardly, even demoniacal, plot that was being so skilfully woven in their midst.

Next afternoon Bernard Boyne stepped from out of the Holyhead express upon Euston platform and drove in a taxi to Pont Street, where he was greeted warmly by his wife, who had been informed of his advent by telegram from Chester.

"Well?" she asked, when the door of the luxurious drawing-room was closed and they were alone. "And how did you find Ena?"

"She's splendid! All goes well," was his enthusiastic reply. "She's got hold of a young Manchester solicitor who is carrying the policy through all right. He happens to be an agent of the Universal. She's on her way back to London now. I wasn't seen with her in the hotel, of course."

"When is she coming here?"

"To-night at nine. She wants to see you."

"I think the less she sees of me just now the better, don't you, Bernie?"

"I quite agree. We don't want anyone to recognise you as friends when the time comes," replied Boyne. "As soon as she gets passed by the doctors – both of them unknown to any of us – which is a blessing – she'll have to go up to Scotland."

"To New Galloway again?"

"No. To Ardlui, that pretty little village at the head of Loch Lomond. The inquiries I have been making of the servants at Carsphairn show that it is the lady's intention to go with her maid to Ardlui for a fortnight, and thence to Edinburgh for another fortnight."

"Really, Bernie, you are wonderful in the way you pry into people's intentions."

"Only by knowing the habits and intentions of our friends can we hope to be successful," was his reply, as he flung himself back among the silken cushions of the couch and lazily lit a cigarette.

"So Ena will have to go to Scotland again?"

"Yes. She ought to pass the doctors in a week, for this young fellow is pushing it through because of the handsome fee she will give him, and then, in the following week, she must put on her best frocks and best behaviour and take a 'sleeper' on the nine twenty-five from Euston to Glasgow."

"What an adventure!" remarked the handsome woman before him.

"Of course. But we are out for big money this time, remember."

"You have examined the whole affair, I suppose, and considered it from every standpoint – eh?"

"Of course I have. As far as I can discover, there is no flaw in our armour. This young solicitor is newly married, and is much gratified that the wealthy Mrs. Morrison should take such notice of his young wife. But you know Ena well enough to be sure that she plays the game all right. She's the rich widow to the very letter, and talks about her 'dear husband' in a manner that is really pathetic. She declares that they were such a devoted couple."

"Yes. Ena can play the game better than any woman in England," agreed his wife. "Have some tea?"

"No; it's too hot," he replied. "Get me some lemonade."

And she rose, and presently brought him a glass of lemonade. She preferred to wait upon him, for she was always suspicious of the maids trying to listen to their conversation, which, however, was discreet and well guarded.

That night at about half-past nine, husband and wife having dined together t?te-?-t?te– being waited on by the smart young Italian footman – Ena Pollen was ushered into the drawing-room.

"Oh! Welcome back, dear!" cried Mrs. Braybourne, jumping up and embracing her friend, making pretence, of course, before the servant. "Sit down. I had no idea you were in London! I thought you were somewhere in the wilds of Wales."

Then, when the door had closed, her attitude altered to one of deep seriousness.

"Well," she said, "according to Bernie, everything goes well, doesn't it?"

"Excellently," replied the other. "You see in me Mrs. Augusta Morrison, widow, of Carsphairn, New Galloway, who is in London on a visit to her friend, Ena Pollen, and who is about to be passed as a first-class life!" And she laughed, the other two smiling grimly.

"I congratulate you upon finding that young solicitor. What's his name?"

"Emery – just getting together a practice and looking out for the big commission on the first of my premiums," she said. "We've met those before. Do you recollect that fellow Johnson-Hughes? Phew! what an ass!"

"But he was over head and ears in love with you, my dear Ena," said Boyne, "and you know it."

"Don't be sarcastic, Bernie!" she exclaimed, with a pout. "Whether he was in love with me or not, it doesn't matter. We brought off the little affair successfully, and we all had a share of the pickings. In these post-war profiteering days it is only by callous dishonour and double-dealing one can make both ends meet. It begins in the Cabinet and ends with the marine store dealer. Honesty spells ruin. That's my opinion."

"I quite agree," Lilla declared. "If we had all three played a straight game, where should we be now?"

"Living in Bridge Place," remarked Boyne, whereat the two women laughed merrily.

* * * * *

That night Marigold met Gerald at Mark Lane Station, and they travelled westward together on the way home. In the Underground train they chatted about the mystery of Bridge Place, but amid the crush and turmoil of home-going City workers they could say but little.

Marigold had been again to see her deaf aunt, who was still unsuspicious of the strange state of affairs in her master's humble home.

Gerald was next day compelled to accompany his principal up north to a conference upon food prices, and for ten days he remained away. Therefore Marigold could only watch and wait.

She went to Bridge Place several times, and saw Mr. Boyne there. He was always cheerful and chatty. About him there seemed nothing really suspicious. Indeed, when she considered it all, she began to wonder whether she had not made a fool of herself.

CHAPTER IV
PROGRESS OF THE PLOT

In the dull, sombre consulting-room of Sir Humphrey Sinclair in Queen Anne Street, Cavendish Square – a room with heavy mahogany furniture, well-worn carpet, a big writing-table set in the window, and an adjustable couch against the wall – sat the pseudo Mrs. Augusta Morrison, who desired to insure her life.

At the table sat the great physician, a clean-shaven, white-haired man, in large, round, gold-rimmed spectacles. He was dressed in a grey cashmere suit – for the weather was unbearably hot that morning – and, truth to tell, he was longing for his annual vacation at his pretty house by the sea at Frinton.

In the medical world Humphrey Sinclair had made a great name for himself, and had had among his patients various European royalties, besides large numbers of the British aristocracy and well-known people of both sexes. Quiet mannered, soft spoken, and exquisitely polite, he was always a favourite with his lady patients, while Lady Sinclair herself moved in a very good set.

Having arranged a number of papers which the Universal had sent to him, he took one upon which a large number of questions were printed with blank spaces for the proposer's replies. Then, turning to her, he said, with a smile:

"I fear, Mrs. Morrison, that I shall be compelled to ask you a number of questions. Please understand that they are not merely out of curiosity, but the company claim a right to know the family and medical history of any person whose life they insure.

"I perfectly understand, Sir Humphrey," replied the handsome woman. "Ask me any questions you wish, and I will try to reply to them to the best of my ability."

"Very well," he said. "Let's begin." And he commenced to put to her questions regarding the date of her birth, the cause of the deaths of her father and her mother, whether she had ever suffered from this disease or that, dozens of which were enumerated. And so on.

For nearly half an hour the great doctor plied her with questions which he read aloud from the paper, and then wrote down her replies in the spaces reserved for them.

Never once did she hesitate – she knew those questions off by heart, indeed, and had her replies ready, replies culled from a budget of information which during the past three months had been cleverly collected. Truth to tell, she was replying quite accurately to the questions, but only so far as Mrs. Morrison of Carsphairn was concerned. The medical history she gave was correct in every detail concerning Mrs. Morrison.

But, after all, was not the proposal upon the life of Mrs. Morrison, and did not the famous physician believe her to be the widow of Carsphairn?

Sir Humphrey asked her to step upon the weighing machine in the corner of the room, and afterwards he measured her height and wrote it down with a grunt of satisfaction.

Then, after further examination, and putting many questions, he reseated himself, and turned to the page upon which his own private opinion was to be recorded.

"I hope you don't find much wrong with me?" asked the lady, with a little hesitation.

"No, my dear madam – nothing that I can detect," was the physician's reply as he gazed at her through his big glasses. "Of course, my colleague, Doctor Hepburn, may discover something. I shall have to ask you to call upon him."

"When?"

"Any time you care to arrange. To-day – if you like. He may be at home. Shall I see?"

"I do so wish you would, Sir Humphrey," Ena said. "I want to get back to Scotland, as I have to go to Ardlui next week."

The great doctor took the telephone at his elbow, and was soon talking to Doctor Hepburn, with whom he arranged for the lady to call in an hour.

Then Sir Humphrey scribbled the address in Harley Street on a slip of paper, and with a few polite words of reassurance, rang his bell, and the man-servant conducted her out.

"An exceptionally pretty woman," grunted old Sir Humphrey to himself when she had gone. "Highly intelligent, and a first-class life."

And he sat down to record his own private views as to the physical condition of the person proposed for insurance.

Ena idled before the shop windows in Oxford Street for three-quarters of an hour, and then took a taxi to Harley Street, where she found Doctor Stanley Hepburn, a short, stout, brown-bearded man of rather abrupt manner.

In his smart, up-to-date consulting-room he put the same questions to her, wearying as they were, and parrot-like she answered them.

"Truly, I'm having a busy morning, doctor," she remarked, with a sigh, laughing at the same time.

"Apparently," he said, smiling. "I must apologise for bothering you with all these questions. Sir Humphrey has, no doubt, gone through them all."

"He has."

"Well, never mind. Forgive me, and let's get along," he said briskly.

And he proceeded with question after question. At last, after an examination exactly like that conducted by Sir Humphrey, Doctor Hepburn reseated himself at his table, and said:

"Well, Mrs. Morrison, I don't think I need keep you any longer."

"Are you quite satisfied with me?" she asked boldly.

He was silent for a few seconds.

"As far as I myself am concerned I see no reason whatever why the company should not accept the risk," was his reply. "Of course, I don't know the nature of Sir Humphrey's report; but I expect it coincides with my own. I can detect nothing to cause apprehension, and, in normal circumstances, you should live to quite old age."

"Thanks! That is a very agreeable piece of information," she said.

Then, his waiting-room being crowded – for he had given her a special appointment – he rose and, bowing, dismissed her, saying:

"I shall send in my report to the company to-night, therefore the matter should go through without delay."

Afterwards, as she walked along Harley Street, a great weight having been lifted from her mind, she hailed a taxi and drove back to her pretty flat in Upper Brook Street, where a dainty lunch awaited her.

To answer frankly and correctly those questions had been an ordeal. Those queries were so cleverly arranged that if, after death, the replies to any of them are found to be false the company would be able to resist the claim upon it. To give a true and faithful account of your parents' ailments and your own illnesses is difficult enough, but to give an equally true account of those of another person is extremely difficult and presents many pitfalls. And none knew that better than Ena Pollen.

After lunch, she rested for an hour, as was her habit in summer, and then she took a taxi to Pont Street, where she had tea with Lilla Braybourne.

To her she related her adventures among the medicos, adding:

"All is serene! There's nothing the matter with Mrs. Morrison of Carsphairn! She's in excellent health and may live to be ninety. Hers is a first-class life!"

"Bernie predicted it," said the wife of the humble insurance agent of Hammersmith. "You were passed fit in the Fitzgerald affair – you recollect."

"Yes," snapped the handsome woman. "What a pity the sum wasn't five thousand instead of five hundred."

"I agree. But we didn't then realise how easy was the game. Now we know – a few preliminary inquiries, a plausible tongue – which, thanks to Heaven, you've got, Ena – a few smart dresses, and a knowledge of all the devious ways of insurance and assignments – and the thing is easy."

"Well, as far as we've gone in this matter all goes well – thanks to Bernie's previous inquiries regarding the good lady of Carsphairn."

"She's a bit of a skinflint, I believe. Can't keep servants. She has a factor who is a very close Scot, and things at Carsphairn are usually in a perturbed condition," Lilla said. "Bernie has gone back to Bridge Place. What an awful life the poor dear leads! Fancy having to live with that deaf old woman Felmore!"

"Yes. But isn't it part of the game? By living in Hammersmith, and being such a hard-working, respectable man, he acquires a lot of very useful knowledge."

"Quite so; but it must be very miserable there for him."

"He doesn't mind it, he says," was the reply. "It brings money."

"It certainly does that," said Lilla. "When shall you go north? Will you wait till the policy is issued?"

"I think not. The sooner I meet Mrs. Morrison the better. Don't you agree?"

"Certainly. What does Bernie say?"

"That's his view," answered Ena. "So I shall go to Scotland at the end of the week. I shall stay at the Central, in Glasgow, for a night or two, and then on to Loch Lomond."

"Bernie has heard from one of his secret sources of information that the widow is leaving Carsphairn three days earlier than she intended. She goes to visit a niece who lives in Crieff, and then on to Ardlui."

"I've been to Ardlui before – on a day trip from Glasgow up the Loch," Ena said. "A quiet, remote little place, with an excellent hotel right at the extreme end of the Loch, beyond Inversnaid."

"Then you'll go north without waiting for the policy?"

"Yes. Letters will come to me addressed care of myself, and Bernie will send them on. As soon as I have notice that the company will accept me, I'll pay the premium. I've already opened a little account in the name of Augusta Morrison, so that I can send them a cheque. In the meanwhile, we need lose no time."

"And yet I don't think we ought to rush it unduly, do you?" asked Lilla.

"Oh! we shan't do that, my dear Lilla. There's a lot to be done in the matter of inspiring confidence. Perhaps dear Augusta will not take to me. What then?"

"You always know how to make yourself pleasant, Ena. She'll take to you, never fear!"

"According to the reports we've had about her, she's rather discriminating in her friendships," said the handsome woman, smiling grimly.

"Well, I rather wish I were coming with you for a fortnight on Loch Lomond," said Lilla.

"No, my dear, you have no place in the picture at present. Much as I would like your companionship, you are far better here at home."

"Yes, I suppose you are right!" answered her friend, sighing. "But I long for Scotland in these warm summer days."

"Get Bernie to take you to the seaside for a bit. There's nothing urgent doing just now."

"Bernie is far too busy in Hammersmith, my dear," Lilla laughed. "He wouldn't miss his weekly round for worlds. Besides, he's got some important church work on – helping the vicar in a series of mission meetings."

"Bernie is a good Churchman, I've heard," said Ena.

"Of course. That, too, is part of the big bluff. The man who carries round the bag every Sunday is always regarded as pious and upright. And Bernie never loses a chance to increase his halo of respectability."

Ena remained at Pont Street for about half an hour longer, and then, returning to her own flat, she set about sorting out the dresses she would require for Scotland, and assisted her elderly maid to pack them.

Afterwards she returned into her elegant little drawing-room and seated herself at the little writing-table, where she consulted a diary. Then she wrote telegrams to the hotels at Glasgow and at Ardlui, engaging rooms for dates which, after reflection, she decided upon.

Ena Pollen was a woman of determination and method. Her exterior was that of a butterfly of fashion, careless of everything save her dress and her hair, yet beneath the surface she was calm, clever, and unscrupulous, a woman who had never loved, and who, indeed, held the opposite sex in supreme contempt. The adventure in which she was at that moment engaged was the most daring she had ever undertaken. The unholy trio had dabbled in small affairs, each of which had brought them profit, but the present undertaking would, she knew, require all her tact and cunning.



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