William Le Queux.

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



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"Why not come to London for a month or so? Go to the theatres and restaurants, and have an enjoyable time? I do, and I find that I'm amused and meet many interesting people. You are going to Brighton. Why not remain in London for a bit after your visit there?" the Red Widow suggested. "I know a good many people, and I think you would have a nice time. Besides, you would do shopping also. Paris and London are the only places where one can buy anything decent to wear nowadays."

"You are really very good, Mrs. Pollen, to offer to entertain me in London," she declared. "Of course, I have other engagements, but – "

"Oh, but those can be broken. If you are going to Brighton, make a stay in London on your return. I live in Upper Brook Street. Do you know it?"

"Oh yes. I once, long ago, had a friend who lived there. I know it quite well."

"I have only a small flat, otherwise I would offer you hospitality."

"Oh – no," said the widow. "I can easily stay at the Carlton, the Ritz, or somewhere."

"Then think it over," said the pleasant woman from London.

"Yes, I will," replied the other. "We have many things in common, I believe, and I am sure that we shall be good friends."

"I'm delighted to hear that your thoughts coincide with my own. I make very few new acquaintances; I have so many old friends."

"And I make none. Not that I'm at all exclusive, I hope. But the majority of women I meet I find too shallow and frivolous, and they don't attract me."

"Then I consider myself highly honoured!" laughed Ena, as the pair rose to walk back to the Crianlarich Hotel to tea.

And while Mrs. Morrison of Carsphairn, ignorant of what was in progress, believed that she really had found a delightful friend – a woman after her own heart – the Red Widow smiled within herself, highly gratified at her success.

CHAPTER IX
A GENTLEMAN NAMED GREIG

The days passed pleasantly enough at Ardlui. Mrs. Morrison and her newly-found friend usually went walking or driving together over the heather-clad mountains, or along the loch-side, so remotely picturesque and silent.

One day she received an offer – through a firm of estate-agents in Edinburgh – from a well-known cotton-spinner in Oldham to rent Carsphairn furnished for a year. It was a most tempting offer, and Mrs. Morrison showed the letter to her friend.

"If I were you, I would accept it," Mrs. Pollen urged. "It would do you good to travel, to see London life a little, and go over to Paris and to Nice in winter. I could not vegetate always on a Scottish estate, much as I love the country."

"I confess I feel half inclined to accept. Lately I have felt very lonely and dull at Carsphairn, and now with winter in front of us I should, I agree, be far more happy with a little amusement."

"Of course," said Ena, as they were walking together near the hotel. "You are going to Edinburgh next week, so I would write to the agents and say that you will call upon them."

"Very well, I will," said Mrs.

Morrison. "You are coming to Edinburgh, too, aren't you?"

"Just for a couple of days before I return to London."

"Then we will travel together, and stay at the Caledonian," said Augusta Morrison.

And so it was agreed.

That Ena had successfully ingratiated herself with Mrs. Morrison was proved by a letter she wrote that day to her niece at Brighton, in which she said:

"I have met an exceedingly nice woman here – a Mrs. Pollen, who lives in Upper Brook Street, London. I will ask her down to Brighton while I am with you. She has persuaded me to spend a little time in London after I leave you, and I think the change will do me good. I am contemplating letting Carsphairn furnished for a year, and spending the winter first on the Riviera, and later in Egypt. I make few friends, as you know, but I am sure you will like Mrs. Pollen. She is very often at the Metropole, at Brighton. Next week we go to Edinburgh together, and after I have done my business there I shall come straight to you."

Ena, with her innate cunning, had been quick to realise the open friendship which her companion had extended towards her. This somewhat surprised her, for a woman is the enemy of every other woman. Few women ever see beauty or good qualities in another.

Only a few days before Ena went north, she was discussing the point with Lilla Braybourne over tea in the latter's drawing-room.

"Women see in every other female thing a potential rival, my dear Lilla," she had said. "That is what makes my task so hard. Every woman defends herself against every other woman, fully confident that the hand of the female world is raised against her."

"I think I agree," was Lilla's reply. "I've hardly ever known a woman to admire the good looks of another of her sex. Curious, isn't it? But it's quite true what you say. Pussies lap tea and scandal everywhere, and even a female saint too often uses her crown of thorns to scratch."

"Yes," laughed the handsome adventuress. "I heard it said the other day that to the woman of thirty the girl of eighteen is a crime, and that to-day's fashion is to look sixteen if you're sixty, and to collar your daughter's lovers if they are not wide awake enough to prevent you. That's what makes it so hard for me."

"Few women can attract women, Ena. You are one of them. You deserve the O.B.E. for it."

"But it is a most difficult and often dangerous undertaking," she declared; "and, after all, the O.B.E. has been given for less."

By the least lapse of the tongue or a too eager appearance to scrape up an acquaintanceship would, Ena knew, alienate Mrs. Morrison for ever. The widow's reverence for her departed husband was the saving clause. She had professed deep sympathy, and in the delightful fiction she had told about her own life and "dear Peter," her late husband, she had attracted Augusta as one of the few women who were womanly.

Who was it said that modern love starts in Heaven and ends in the Sunday newspaper? Ena's philosophy was always amusing. She scoffed at love, at life, at beauty, at everything. Indeed, on that very day as she walked with Mrs. Morrison she had caused her to laugh heartily by referring to some woman friend of hers who lived at Surbiton as "one of those women who shine with virtue and the cheapest sort of complexion soap."

Ena Pollen had a caustic tongue as far as her own sex was concerned, yet she could assume such a suave, sweet manner towards women as entirely to disarm them.

It was so in Mrs. Morrison's case. As the warm, delightful days went on, they were inseparable, exchanging intimate details of their own careers, and fast becoming firm friends.

The arrival of the steamer from Balloch each afternoon was the chief excitement, and by it visitors to the hotel came and left.

One afternoon the steamer brought a short, round-faced little man, very well-dressed, whose speech showed that he came from Glasgow. He had a suit-case with him, and took the one room which happened to be disengaged, giving the name of John Greig. He was an alert-looking business man, probably a Glasgow merchant out for a few days' relaxation from the eternal bustle of Sauchiehall Street.

He sat alone at dinner, and once or twice glanced in the direction of the two ladies who sat together in the window, for Mrs. Morrison had now joined Mrs. Pollen. Both were better dressed than the other visitors, especially Ena, who wore a semi-evening frock and a jade-coloured velvet band in her red hair.

After dinner the visitor strolled alone in the garden until he found a man to chat with, the pair sitting smoking in the moonlight until it became time to retire.

When John Greig reached his room he flung himself into a chair, and beneath his breath, remarked:

"By Jove! She's a handsome woman, too! But she's not Joan Eastlake. That's my belief. Nevertheless, now I'm here, I may as well make quite certain."

And he took out a final cigarette from his case and smoked it reflectively before he turned in.

Next day he was about early at the loch-side, and though he contrived to arouse no suspicion in the minds of either those connected with the hotel or any of his fellow-visitors, he kept casual observation upon the pair. Now and then he would accidentally be so close in their vicinity as to be able to overhear scraps of their conversation. Yet so cleverly did he do this, and so utterly uninterested did he appear to be, that even Ena, who was ever suspicious of eavesdroppers and persons watching, failed to realise the intense interest which she had evoked in the little round-faced man.

The following day Ena accompanied her friend on a trip across to Loch Katrine, but the stranger idled about the hotel and wrote letters. After lunch, however, at the hour when the small establishment was quietest, the curiosity of anyone watching him would certainly have been aroused. His actions were truly a little peculiar.

At about three o'clock that afternoon, having ascertained that none of the servants were about, he slipped silently to Mrs. Pollen's bedroom, the door of which was unlocked, and, entering quickly, closed the door after him. Then, walking straight to a big dressing-case which lay upon a chair near the window, he took out a bunch of keys and tried one after the other in an effort to open it.

He failed, none of the keys would fit.

"If I force it she'll suspect," he murmured. "No, I must give it up for the present – curse it!"

Then he made a tour of the room, opened the wardrobe, and examined the contents of several drawers, but though some expensive jewellery was there, he cast it aside in contempt.

Mr. Greig did not want jewels. It was evident that he was in search of something else far more interesting. But that lock upon the dressing-case was an unusually good one, and had defied all his many keys.

There was but one course to pursue, and that was to retreat to his own room, which he did in great disappointment and chagrin.

That evening he watched the two women on their return. His movements were those of a practised watcher. He was unobtrusive, disinterested in everything save the picturesque surroundings, and behaved as though he had no interest whatever in any person in the hotel.

That evening, while in the garden after dinner, he found himself sitting on a seat beside Mrs. Morrison, and ventured to address a remark to her regarding the glorious sunset.

What more natural than in a few moments Ena and her friend were chatting affably with the new-comer.

"This is my first visit to Scotland," Ena declared, though it was a falsehood, "and I'm delighted with it. My views – those of a Londoner – have entirely altered concerning Scotland and the Scottish people. I don't agree now with the ridicule cast upon them."

"I'm very glad of that," declared Mr. Greig. "In the south you don't really understand us, I think. And perhaps we here don't quite understand you. National prejudices are very hard to break down."

"They are. But you see the majority of the English never come north. They view the Scottish people by the ridicule cast upon them by performers on our music-halls. It is unfortunate, but it is a fact."

"Never mind," laughed the pleasant-faced man from Glasgow. "Our national pride is never hurt by those amblers on the stage who wax fat upon the profits of their mimicry. We only laugh at it up here, I assure you," he declared to Mrs. Pollen.

The conversation drifted naturally to the fact that Mrs. Morrison told him her name, which was Scottish, and the identity of her late husband, so well known in Glasgow.

"Oh! I knew your husband quite well, Mrs. Morrison," declared John Greig, for no shrewder or more well-informed person was there between the Lowlands and Cromarty. "I knew him twenty years ago. Do you recollect Mr. Buchanan, who had an office in St. Vincent Street, Glasgow, and with whom he went into partnership? Mr. Buchanan died about four years ago. I went to visit him once at that beautiful house of his on Loch Rannoch."

"Then you knew Mr. Buchanan!" cried Mrs. Morrison. "He was a dear fellow. My husband was devoted to him. Together they built up the works."

"I know. Everyone in commercial circles in Glasgow knows how closely they worked together, and, Mrs. Morrison, I may tell you that not a worker on the Clyde has any but good words for your husband and his partner. The conditions of work in your husband's place at Govan were always ideal. We hear much of labour trouble in these post-bellum days, but if all works were like your husband's there would be little to grumble at."

"It is awfully good of you to pay such a tribute to my husband's regard for his employees," said Mrs. Morrison, much gratified. "He and I often discussed their welfare, and I always agreed with him that labour should be duly paid and there should be no sweating. We have Socialist propaganda on the Clyde to-day, but is it at all astonishing in view of the high prices, of Government muddle and waste, and the advancement into society by the King's favour in the shape of 'honours' of bare-faced swindlers and those who escape under the more euphonious name of profiteers?"

"Ah! I'm glad that you have realised the deadly peril of Britain, Mrs. Morrison," Greig said. "As a business man in Glasgow – I am an exporter to the East – I know much of what is transpiring among the Socialists, and I know the deadly peril of Britain to-day."

The fact that Greig had known not only her husband but his partner, Buchanan, appealed to Mrs. Morrison, with the result that he had frequent chats with her, and incidentally with her friend, Ena Pollen, whose belongings he had so carefully scrutinised in her absence.

The man from Glasgow, with his round, merry, well-shaven face, a countenance of prosperity, was a typical man of business, and he appealed to old Morrison's widow as a very nice man.

With her estimate Ena, any suspicion utterly disarmed, entirely agreed.

Pleasant, humorous, and careless in his relaxation from money-making in grim and grimy Glasgow, John Greig was an excellent fellow on holiday. His estimate of women – for he was a bachelor – coincided entirely with that of Ena Pollen.

To be frank, he had, in the course of conversation, gauged her views regarding her own sex, and he at once sought to cultivate her acquaintance upon her line of thought.

"Of course," she said next morning, as he found himself gossiping with her after breakfast, "woman ought not to work at all. No man really likes a woman who works for him. Work isn't woman's natural element, though trouble is. Work is an odious word to women."

"Really, Mrs. Pollen, your philosophy is quite upon that of my own thinking," laughed Greig. "Once a man I know declared to me that to girls business life would be a dull existence if it were not for its sly opening for an illicit romance."

"One woman writer has said, and with much truth, that petticoats, like time, were made for slaves, and that there is more virtue in a single pair of trousers than there is in a multitude of skirts," laughed Ena.

"True. Was it not the same lady author who told us that the wrong part of wrong-doing is being found out?"

"Ah! yes. And the same feminine philosopher went farther," Ena said. "She declared that the woman who thinks it wicked to buy silk petticoats and luxurious 'undies' – 'because no one sees them' – is a fool; but the hedonist who frankly revels in the feel and frou-frou of silk and cr?pe de chineand mysterious lace things is as wise as Eve, who wore leaves rather than nothing, and made a tantalising mystery of herself out of the poor resources at her command."

The man from Glasgow laughed immoderately. "Really," he remarked, "you have no great admiration of your own sex, Mrs. Pollen."

"No, I have not," declared the Red Widow frankly, as they both halted and leaned over a gate which gave entrance to a great green meadow beyond which was the edge of the loch, the water of which lay like a mirror in the morning sunlight.

Up there, far removed from the life and bustle of the outer world, with all its political bickerings and its labour troubles, life was very enjoyable, and the two women who had become so friendly had quickly discovered in John Greig a man whose ideas corresponded exactly with their own – a man who had formed distinct views upon life, and who was not afraid to admit them.

At last came the afternoon of their departure for Edinburgh. They bade Mr. Greig farewell on the Pier just before the steamer started for Balloch.

Then, going on board, they waved him a farewell as the paddles began to revolve, sending out long ripples over the glassy surface of the loch.

He raised his hat with a merry laugh, but as he did so, he remarked beneath his breath:

"After all – I'm not sure, even now!"

CHAPTER X
MORE MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES

"Let's pull up here; it's so delightfully shady."

Marigold Ramsay, who spoke, lay back among the crimson cushions of the punt, with her eyes fixed upon the sky.

She loved the river. That Sunday afternoon was perfect, and she was enjoying the day on the river after a week's hard work in the bank.

Gerald, who was an expert with the punt-pole, was taking her up that pretty reach of the Thames which winds between Shepperton and Walton, with the long rows of poplars fringing the river bank.

They had lunched at the little riverside inn at Halliford, and were now making their way slowly up-stream. Gerald, in flannels, with coat off and sleeves upturned, placing his pole and withdrawing it without any apparent effort.

Since that adventurous night at Bridge Place they had become even closer friends. No day passed but they met. The previous two Sundays Durrant had spent with her, the first at Dorking, where they had wandered over Leith Hill and along the Surrey lanes, and the next Sunday at Brighton. This, the third Sunday, they had decided to spend together on the Thames.

As they were passing beneath a long row of trees which overhung the water, the girl, who was in white, raised herself from her couch of cushions and suggested that they should tie up the punt there.

"Certainly," he replied, and a few moments later he had secured the punt to a tree root, and, sitting down to rest, he lit his pipe.

"Do you know, Gerald, I've been thinking again about Mr. Boyne," she said. "I can't get the man out of my mind."

"Well, to tell the truth, Marigold, neither can I," replied the young man. "Ever since that night at Hammersmith I've been trying in vain to solve the mystery."

"About the person concealed upstairs," remarked the blue-eyed girl reflectively. "Yes, it's most curious."

"It's more than curious," her companion declared. "Though I haven't mentioned it to you, I've watched the house for several nights, but I must admit that I've seen nothing at all suspicious."

"Oh! Then you've been on the watch!" she cried excitedly.

"Yes, on four occasions, and all to no purpose. Last Friday I waited from nine o'clock till one in the morning, and got wet through. He returned about ten, but did not come out again."

"He was upstairs with his secret friend, I suppose," said the girl.

"No doubt. Whoever may be confined there could not exist without seeing a human face and conversing with him, even for five minutes each day, or he would certainly go mad," said Gerald. "You remember I said that Italians, who have abolished capital punishment for murder, have substituted solitary confinement. It is far more terrible. They confine the assassin in a cell in silence, without sight of a human face. Their food is placed upon a turntable which revolves into the cell, so that the prisoner never sees a face. Such torture was invented long ago in the Bastille, and in every case it drives the guilty one raving mad within five years."

"How horrible!" cried the girl.

"I admit it is, but surely the punishment is far greater than that of hanging, or even the guillotine. Both are instantaneous, yet in Italy the criminal suffers all the tortures of Dante's Inferno – and deservedly so."

"Then you saw nothing?" asked Marigold.

"I fancied a lot, but I saw really nothing to increase my suspicions. One thing we know – that he is concealing some person in that locked room. Now who can the person be?"

"It may be some relative who has done something very wrong and is afraid of the police," suggested the girl.

"Agreed. It may be. But we have discussed the matter so many times that I think we should not talk further – but act," he said. "We have proved beyond doubt that Bernard Boyne is a man of mystery. Your deaf aunt, a most worthy woman, acts as his housekeeper. Why does he retain her? Merely because she is stone-deaf. Why does he want a deaf woman to wait upon him? Because there are sometimes noises in the house which would arouse the curiosity of any who chanced to overhear them."

"We must discover the identity of the person concealed," remarked the girl with the big blue eyes, as she lay back lazily among the cushions.

"We must. At all costs I intend to solve this mystery. Marigold," he said, removing his pipe from his lips and looking straight into her eyes, "my own belief is that you have discovered some very strange and startling drama of our complex London life – one which, when investigated, will prove to be astounding."



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