William Le Queux.

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



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Though the girl pretended to be entirely against receiving any present, yet she realised that possession of such a respectable sum would be able to assist in preparing her new home. After all, it was most generous of Madame. Yes! she had sadly misjudged her, she reflected, after Mrs. Pollen had left. So, adopting her late mistress's suggestion, she refrained from telling her mother of the unexpected visit.

That night she wrote to Galtier, who was staying in a boarding-house in Bloomsbury, telling him that she had heard of the death of Bennett, but not revealing the source of her information. She therefore suggested that he should spend no further time or money on the inquiry, but return at once to his duties at Chantilly.

Next day C?line called at the H?tel Bristol, when mistress and maid went together to the bank in the Boulevard des Italians, and there the girl received the handsome present. After this, she returned much gratified to Melun, while her late mistress left Paris that same night for London.

She had cleverly gained the girl's complete confidence, thereby preventing any further inquiry into the curious circumstances attending the death of Mr. Martin, of Chiswick.

CHAPTER VI
THE LOCKED ROOM IN HAMMERSMITH

"I'll go in first, and see if Mr. Boyne is at home," said Marigold Ramsay excitedly to her companion, Gerald Durrant, as they turned into Bridge Place, Hammersmith, about half-past nine one night ten days later.

"Yes. If he's there I won't come in. We'll wait till another evening," the young fellow said.

"If he's out, I shall tell auntie that you are here, and ask whether I can bring you in," said the girl, and leaving him idling at the corner, she hurried to the house, and went down the basement steps.

What Marigold had told Durrant had aroused his curiosity concerning the occupier of that creeper-covered house, and after much deliberation, he had, after his return from Newcastle, decided to make an investigation. Certainly the exterior of the place presented nothing unusual, for the house was exactly the same as its neighbours, save for the dusty creeper which hung untrimmed around the windows. Yet the fact that the man who lived there disguised himself when he went to a locked attic was certainly mysterious.

After a few moments, the girl emerged, and hastening towards him, said eagerly:

"It's all right. Mr. Boyne is not expected home before half-past ten. I'll introduce you to my aunt, and before she goes to bed – as she always does at ten – I'll manage to unbolt the basement door. Then we'll go out, and return without her being any the wiser."

"Excellent!" he replied, as they walked to the front door which Marigold had left ajar.

In the hall Mrs. Felmore met them fussily.

"Very pleased to know you, Mr. Durrant," declared the deaf old lady without, of course, having heard Gerald's greeting as he shook her hand.

"My aunt is very deaf," the girl said.

"She can read what I say by my lips, but it will be useless for you to try and converse with her. Mr. Boyne can just manage to do so."

"Then I'll do the same," said Gerald, glancing around the front parlour, into which Mrs. Felmore had then ushered them.

He noted the cheapness of the furniture, combined with scrupulous cleanliness, as Mrs. Felmore, turning to him, said in that loud voice in which the deaf usually converse:

"I hope you'll make yourself at home, Mr. Durrant! Any friend of my niece is welcome here. Would you like a cup of tea? I know Marigold will have one."

He thanked her, and she went below to prepare it, leaving the pair in Mr. Boyne's room.

Quickly Gerald rose, remarking:

"There's nothing very curious about this, is there?" He made a critical tour of the apartment.

He noticed the cupboards on either side of the fireplace, and on trying the handle of one, found it locked.

"He keeps his insurance papers in there," said his companion in a low voice.

"What? More insurance papers! I thought he kept them in the locked room upstairs!" exclaimed Durrant.

"So he does, but there are some others here," she said. "This cupboard is open. He keeps Nibby here."

"Nibby – who's that?"

"Here he is!" replied the girl, opening the door and taking out the cage containing the tame rat.

"Is that his pet?" asked the young man, bending to examine the little animal, whose beady eyes regarded him with considerable apprehension.

"Yes. Nibby always feeds off his master's plate after he has finished. A sweet little thing, isn't he?"

Durrant agreed, but the possession of such a pet showed him that Boyne was a man of some eccentricity.

"Would you like to see the door of the locked room?" Marigold asked. "If so, I'll go downstairs and keep my aunt there while you run up to the top floor."

"Excellent! I've brought my electric torch with me."

So while Marigold descended to the kitchen to talk to her aunt and help to prepare the cup of tea, young Durrant switched on his light and rushed up the stairs, half fearing lest the front door should suddenly open and Boyne appear.

Arrived at the top of the stairs, he was confronted by the door which led into the attic, a stout one of oak, he noted. The doors of all the other rooms were of deal, painted and grained. This, however, was heavy, and of oiled oak.

After careful examination, he came to the conclusion that the particular door was much more modern than the others, and the circular brass keyhole of the Yale latch gave it the appearance of the front door of a house, rather than that of a room.

Some strange secret, no doubt, lay behind that locked door.

If it had an occupant he would, in all probability, have a light, therefore he switched off his torch and tried to discover any ray of light shining through a crack.

Carefully he went around the whole door, until he drew away the mat before it, when, sure enough, a light showed from within!

With bated breath he listened. He could, however, distinguish no sound, even though he placed his ear to the floor. Then, raising himself, much gratified at his discovery, but nevertheless increasingly puzzled, he recollected that the occupant, whoever he might be, would no doubt have heard his footsteps and was now remaining quiet, little dreaming that his light had betrayed his presence.

Suddenly, as he stood there straining his ears, he heard the sound of low ticking – the ticking of a clock. Again he bent his ear to the bottom of the door, and then at once established the fact that the clock was inside that locked room.

He heard Marigold coming up from below, and at once slipped down again, meeting her in the hall. When within the sitting-room, he said to her in a low, tense voice:

"There's somebody in that room! There's a light there!"

"Your first surmise is correct then, Gerald!" she exclaimed. "Who can it possibly be?"

"Ah! that we have to discover!" he said. "Let's be patient. I wonder, however, who can be living up there in secret. At any rate, he has both light and the time of day. In this weather he only wants food and water."

"But it's extraordinary that somebody should live here without my aunt's knowledge."

"It is. But there are dozens of people hidden away in London – people believed by their friends to be dead, or abroad," he said. "In a great city like ours it is quite easy to hide, providing that one is concealed by a trusty friend. I wonder," he added, "how many people whose obituary notices have appeared in the papers are living in secret in upstairs rooms or down in cellars, dragging out their lives in self-imprisonment, yet buoyed by the hope that one day they may, when changed in appearance by years, reappear among their fellow-men and laugh up their sleeves because nobody recognises them."

"Really, do you honestly think that Mr. Boyne is concealing somebody here?" asked the girl anxiously.

"Everything points to it – a light in the room, and a clock."

"But why should he pay visits to him in disguise?"

"Ah! That's quite another matter. We have yet to discover the motive. And we can only do so by watching vigilantly."

Then he described to her how he had pulled away the mat from before the door, and how the light had been revealed.

"Well," exclaimed the girl. "I'm greatly puzzled over the whole affair. May I not be frank with auntie, and tell her what we suspect?"

"By no means," he answered. "It would be most injudicious. It would only alarm her, and upset any plans we may make."

"I wonder who can really be up there?"

"Some very close friend of this Mr. Boyne, without a doubt. He must have some strange motive for concealing him."

"But if he's a friend, why does he disguise himself when he visits him?" queried the girl.

"Yes, that's just the point. There's something very curious about the whole affair," declared the young man. "When your aunt is in bed, he goes up, evidently to take his friend food and drink. And yet he puts on a gown which makes him look – as you have described it – like a Spanish Inquisitor."

"Only all in white. Why white?"

"Can it be that the person upstairs is not self-imprisoned?" suggested the young man, as a sudden thought occurred to him. "Can it be that whoever is confined there is without proper mental balance? Solitary confinement produces madness, remember. In Italy, where solitary confinement for life takes the place of capital punishment for murder, the criminal always ends his days as a lunatic – driven mad by that terrible loneliness which even a dog could not suffer."

"That's certainly quite another point of view," she remarked. "I hadn't thought of that!"

"Well, it is one to bear in mind," he said. "Your aunt, a most worthy lady, is devoted to Mr. Boyne and serves him well. For the present let her hold him in high esteem. In the meantime we will watch, and endeavour to solve this mystery, Marigold."

Hardly had the words left his mouth, when the old lady entered the room with two cups of tea upon a brass tray.

"There!" she said, addressing Marigold. "I know you like a cup o' tea at this hour of the evening, and I hope, Mr. Durrant, it will be to your liking. Mr. Boyne often has a cup out of my teapot if he gets home before I go to bed."

"It's awfully good of you, auntie," the girl declared. "I know Mr. Durrant highly appreciates it."

"That's all right," laughed the old lady. "I'll soon be going to bed. It's near ten o'clock now."

Gerald glanced at his wrist-watch and saw that it was just ten.

Then, when Mrs. Felmore had gone, he said to the girl:

"Hadn't we better be going? Boyne will be back soon."

"Right," she said, drinking her tea daintily. "I'll go down and unfasten the basement door. Auntie has no doubt bolted it. Then, when she's gone to bed, we can get in again."

And a few moments later she left him. Five minutes later she reappeared, followed by Mrs. Felmore.

"Auntie is going to bed," she said. "We must be off, Gerald."

The young man rose, smiled pleasantly, and shook the deaf woman's hand in farewell. Then, a few moments later, the young pair descended the front steps and left the house.

About ten minutes later, however, they returned to it, slipping unobserved down the area steps. Marigold turned the handle of the door, and in the darkness they both entered the kitchen, where they waited eagerly, without lighting the gas, and conversing only in whispers. Mrs. Felmore had gone upstairs, and stone-deaf that she was, would hear no noise below.

She had left the gas turned low in the hall in readiness for her master's return, retiring fully satisfied with the appearance and manners of the young man to whom her niece had that night introduced her.

The pair, waiting below in the darkness, remained eagerly on the alert.

It was a quarter past ten, and Bernard Boyne might return at any time. But each minute which passed seemed an hour, so anxious and puzzled were they, and at every noise they held their breath and waited.

At last footsteps sounded outside – somebody ascending the stone steps above – and next second there was a click as a key was put into the latch of the front door.

"Here he is – at last!" the girl whispered. "Now we'll watch!"

They watched together – and by doing so learned some very strange facts.

CHAPTER VII
WHAT HAPPENED IN BRIDGE PLACE

Together Marigold and her lover crept up the kitchen stairs in the darkness, and heard Mr. Boyne moving about in the front parlour.

They heard him yawn as he threw off his coat, for the night was sultry, and there were sounds which showed that he was eating his evening meal. They heard the loud fizzing as he unscrewed a bottle of beer, and the noise of a knife and fork upon the plate, for he had left the door open.

After about ten minutes, for he seemed to eat his supper hurriedly, he flung off his boots, and in his socks crept upstairs to Mrs. Felmore's door, apparently to satisfy himself that she had retired.

"Hadn't we better get down," suggested Durrant, in a low whisper. "He may take it into his head to come down and search here."

"No, he never comes into the kitchen. So long as auntie has gone to bed he does not mind. Let's wait and watch."

This they did. After a few moments Mr. Boyne came down again and walked along the narrow passage back to his room, satisfied that all was quiet.

He had removed his boots, apparently for some other purpose than to be able to move about in silence, for however heavily he trod his old housekeeper would not hear him. Perhaps, however, he feared that her sense of feeling had been so highly developed that she might have detected the vibration caused by his footsteps.

He remained for nearly a quarter of an hour in his room, while the pair stood breathless in the darkness.

"This is just what happened when I last watched," the girl whispered into the ear of the young man who held her arm affectionately in the darkness.

"I wonder when he'll come out," remarked young Durrant, highly excited over the curious adventure. That something remarkable was afoot was proved by the man's action in ascending the stairs to ascertain that his housekeeper had retired and would not disturb his movements.

At last they heard a soft movement, and next moment, peering over the banisters, they saw a tall, ghostly form clad from top to toe in a long, loose white gown advancing to the stairs.

In one hand he carried a glass jug filled with water, and in the other a plate piled with bread and other food.

"See!" whispered Durrant. "There is somebody upstairs in that locked room. He's carrying food and water to his prisoner!"

"Hush!" the girl said softly, and in excitement. "He may hear you! He's very quick!"

But the strange occupant of the house had already ascended out of view, and a few moments later they heard a click as he put his key into the Yale lock of the closed room.

They distinctly heard him open the door, and as distinctly heard him close it again.

"You wait here, Marigold," the young fellow whispered. "I'll creep up and see what I can. Perhaps I shall hear them talking."

"Yes, do," she said. "But take the greatest care. Mind the stairs don't creak. He'll be alarmed in a moment."

"Leave that to me," he replied, and next moment he left her side, and slowly ascending the few remaining steps, gained the hall, and then the foot of the stairs which led to the first floor.

Though he had not removed his shoes he made no noise, for he trod slowly and cautiously, never lifting one foot until the other was down silently. Thus very slowly he followed the mysterious man in white.

Hardly had he ascended four steps when an electric bell sounded, apparently in the locked room. He halted, and in an instant decided to retreat. Scarcely before Marigold had realised that the alarm had sounded, he sprang down, rejoined her, and whispering:

"Quick! Let's get down!" he descended into the dark kitchen. There, clutching her by the arm, he felt his way to the door.

Without pausing to listen to the effect of the alarm upon the man upstairs, the pair passed out into the area, closed the door after them, hurried up the steps, and out into the street.

"Let's get away before he sees us!" Gerald urged, and they both ran light-footed along to the corner into King Street, where they escaped.

"There's a trap in that house!" Durrant declared, as after hurrying breathlessly they walked along in the direction of the Broadway Station. "Upon one of those stairs is an electrical contact which gives to the locked room the alarm of an intruder. He switched it on from his room below!"

"Yes!" said the girl. "I feel sure there is."

"And that shows that there's something very wrong somewhere. Mr. Boyne has, in secret, a guest who is in hiding upstairs. He takes him food and water every night – as we have seen with our own eyes. And, further, he had taken the precaution of installing an electrical alarm in case anyone followed him upstairs while he was there with his friend."

"True," said the girl. "But why does he disguise himself whenever he goes up there?"

"That we cannot yet tell. At present it is a complete mystery."

"And a most uncanny one!"

"It is, I can't see the motive of that disguise."

"Is it not weird? He was covered from head to foot in that white cloak, and only those two slits for his eyes."

"Yes. And he moved as silently as a shadow."

So the pair conversed until they reached the Broadway Station, and left by the Underground a few moments later.

What they had witnessed that night had increased the mystery a hundredfold.

In the meantime Bernard Boyne had been startled by the ringing of the bell, yet in the full knowledge that Mrs. Felmore could hear nothing. That secret alarm had, as a matter of fact, been installed with his own hands about two months before, with its switch concealed in the upstairs room.

On hearing it, he instantly flung off his white cloak and dashed headlong down the stairs.

In the hall, however, he halted and burst out laughing.

"Fool you are, Bernard!" he exclaimed aloud to himself. "Yes, you are getting more nervous every day!"

The reason of this was because close to the front door sat Mrs. Felmore's black cat, waiting to be let out for the night.

"Ah, pussy!" he exclaimed. "So it is you who ran silently down the stairs and set off the gong, eh?"

And, opening the door, he let out the cat, saying:

"Out you go, Jimmy, and don't do it again."

Then he reascended the stairs to the locked room, perfectly satisfied with the solution of what a few moments before had caused him very considerable alarm.

No intruder would be tolerated in that dingy house – the house of great mystery.

He carried in his hand a small bottle of meat extract which he had taken from the sideboard in the parlour, and was fully satisfied that it was the cat who had set off the alarm.

As Gerald and Marigold sat side by side in the train, they could not converse because of the noise, but at Earl's Court, where they changed, the girl for Wimbledon Park and her lover bound in the opposite direction, Marigold halted on the platform, and said:

"I feel worried about auntie, Gerald. There's something wrong in that house. Don't you think so?"

"Frankly, I do," was the young man's reply. "That he sets an alarm when he visits the mysterious person concealed in that locked room is in itself a most remarkable feature of the affair, which is one we must certainly probe to the bottom."

"But Mr. Boyne is such a nice man. Everyone speaks so well of him. In all Hammersmith I don't think he has a single enemy, save those who are jealous of his local popularity. And there are always such."

"As I've said before, Marigold, the men who are deep schemers always take care to establish a high reputation locally. This Mr. Boyne has, no doubt, done so with some ulterior motive."

"And that motive we mean to find out," said the girl decisively.

"We will," he said, in a hard voice. "I feel confident that we are on the track of some very sensational affair."

"Who can be the person who is hiding?"

"Ah! that remains to be seen. It is evidently someone who dare not show his face – not only in the light of day, but even at night."

"But why does Mr. Boyne wear that hideous robe with slits for the eyes?" asked Marigold, bewildered, as they walked to the stairs.

"At present, I can't imagine. But we shall know the truth very soon, never fear," the young man replied. And then, lifting his hat politely, he shook her hand, and they parted after a very adventurous evening.

As Gerald Durrant travelled back to his home, he reflected deeply upon the whole affair. Though he had not dared to mention the fact to Marigold, he was more deeply in love with her than ever. She was the most dainty and most beautiful girl he had ever met. She was chic to the finger-tips, and among the many girl clerks he met daily she was outstanding on account of her refinement, her modesty, and the sweet expression always upon her countenance.

Yet the problem which she had put forward to him was certainly an inscrutable one. Boyne, the highly respectable, hard-working insurance agent, lived in that dingy and rather stuffy house surrounded by meagre comfort which, in itself, betokened modest means. For every penny Bernard Boyne gained he worked very hard. Insurance agency is not highly-paid, for everything is nowadays cut to a minimum, while since the war the cost of living has soared.



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