William Le Queux.

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



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"Do you really think so?" asked the girl, looking into his handsome face.

"Yes – I do. Up to the present all our efforts have been in vain," he said. "Only one fact has been established, and that is that there is a prisoner – whether voluntary or not we cannot tell – in that creeper-covered house. We both saw Boyne creep up with food to him, while I saw his light beneath the door. Somebody is living up there in secret. Is it a man, or is it a woman? His eagerness makes me think that it is a woman. Who is it?"

"Somebody he is shielding – somebody who has committed some serious crime, who fears to show his or her face lest it be recognised by agents of Scotland Yard."

"Really, Marigold, you are very acute," he exclaimed. "We have had so many murder mysteries since the war, and in all of them the police confess their utter confusion, that the present situation fills me with great apprehension."

"I know," she said. "But why not let us begin again? Let us watch the house. I'll watch one night, and you watch the next. Surely we can by that means discover the truth. If the place is watched every night, this man Boyne must, in the end, be defeated."

"But I thought you liked Boyne?"

"Yes; he has been always very good to me. Remember that he is the owner of the place, and my aunt is his housekeeper," replied the girl.

"I quite appreciate your point," said Durrant. "But if we are to fully delve into the affair we must not be influenced by the fellow's open heart. The greatest criminals of the world have always been those who have been popular on account of their bonhomie and generosity."

The girl sat silent, her eyes fixed upon the rushes slowly waving in the stream. A motor-launch passed them, making a high wash against the bank, but she took no heed. She was still thinking of that strange occupant of the house in Bridge Place.

Three times during the past week she had, indeed, visited her aunt in an endeavour to discover something more. Boyne had been out, as usual, therefore she had been able to examine the place thoroughly. She had ascended to that locked room on each occasion, and had listened there. Once in the silence she had heard a distinct movement, a slight rustling, within.

Yet afterwards, as she had reflected, she wondered whether it had not been due to her imagination, or perhaps to a blind flapping at an open window. When one is suspicious, it is so easy to imagine queer circumstances.

"I only wish we could solve the mystery," she remarked wistfully. "It worries me. Auntie seems quite unconcerned."

"Because she has no suspicion, worthy old soul. She has no knowledge of Mr. Boyne's nocturnal visits with food to his friend."

"Why shouldn't we tell her, and then she'll be on the alert?" suggested the girl. "She might discover something."

"She might – but more probably she would be too eager, and thus put Boyne upon his guard," remarked the young fellow.

"No. We must work together in strict secrecy if we intend to be successful."

"But who can he possibly be hiding?"

The young man in flannels shrugged his shoulders, and replied:

"I confess that the problem is getting on my nerves. The more I think it over the more inscrutable it becomes. Mischief is being worked somewhere. Of that I feel confident. All the actions of our friend Boyne point to it."

"But that shroud? Why does he wear it?" asked Marigold blankly.

"As a disguise, without a doubt. Perhaps the person upstairs has been confined there so long that his mind has already become deranged, as is inevitable after a long period of solitary incarceration, and Boyne now takes the precaution of adopting the simple disguise so that his friend should fail to identify him. He may have done his captive some great injury – or something."

"True; but, if he has, it was not in order to gain. Bernard Boyne is a comparatively poor man. My aunt says that he seems to have only just sufficient money to make both ends meet."

Gerald Durrant drew a long breath. Upon his countenance was an expression of doubt.

"He may pass as a poor man, and yet be rich," he remarked. "It may sound romantic, but there are many people living in the by-streets of London, successfully concealed beneath assumed names and unsuspected by their neighbours, who for years have lived a life of penury though they are really well off. And their motive is, for some reason or other, to cut themselves adrift from friends in their own sphere. Indeed, it is a well known fact that in the last days of King Edward an ex-Cabinet Minister lived for several years in seclusion in a meagre side-street near Kennington Park, as Mr. Benwell, his real identity never being suspected until, owing to his sudden death, an inquest was held, and the police, searching his papers, discovered that he was immensely wealthy and one of Britain's foremost statesmen, who was believed to be living in seclusion in Italy."

"Perhaps Mr. Boyne is some person who has sought retirement in a similar manner," Marigold suggested.

"No. If I'm not mistaken, Mr. Boyne is playing a very deep and rather dangerous game – how dangerous I cannot yet discover."

"But you could discover nothing when you watched – just as I failed to find out any fact," she said. "I had no idea you were on the watch."

"I saw you on Tuesday night," he laughed. "You arrived at the house about half-past eight, and had a great trouble getting in."

"Were you there?" she cried eagerly. "I never dreamed that you were in the vicinity. Yes, you are right. I rang and banged on the door half a dozen times before I could attract auntie's attention. She generally leaves the door unlocked in case anyone should call."

"Boyne returned about twenty minutes after you had left, but though I watched till midnight, he did not come out again."

"Couldn't you take a day off one day and follow him when he goes out in the morning?" the girl suggested. "I would do it, but I fear that he'd recognise me."

"I might. But I think I may be more successful at night. It is very difficult to keep observation upon a person in broad daylight. In the darkness it is much easier."

"Why not try again to-night?" suggested Marigold. "I'll go with you."

He shook his head.

"Sunday night is a bad night. We know his habits on week-days, but he may have gone out all day to-day," he replied. "No; to-morrow would be more likely."

"Then let's both go there to-morrow night, and if he comes out of the house we'll watch where he goes."

With this suggestion Gerald agreed, and after she had smoked the cigarette he handed to her from his case, they resumed their punting up-stream in the afternoon sunshine.

Next night they met by appointment at Hammersmith Broadway station at half-past eight, and after a consultation, it was arranged that Marigold should call on her aunt on some pretext, and having ascertained if Boyne had returned, she would rejoin Gerald at a spot in King Street.

Hence he lounged about the busy thoroughfare for a quarter of an hour until she returned with the news that Boyne had been home since six o'clock, he having returned unusually early.

"Ah! That's a good sign," said Gerald. "He'll certainly go out again to-night!"

As they strolled together they arranged that Marigold should loiter near the King Street end of the street, while Gerald should stand in an entry near the house which he had used in his previous observations.

"If you see me pass into King Street, don't follow me too closely," he urged, "and at all hazards don't let him see you. Remember that people who are engaged in crooked business keep their eyes skinned and are always full of suspicion."

"I'll take good care he doesn't see me," the girl answered him. "Trust me to be discreet."

Then they parted, and for about an hour Marigold waited in vain for a sight of her lover. It had now grown quite dark, and the street lamps in Bridge Place were none too brilliant. She was still loitering in the darkness, full of expectation at every footstep on the pavement.

At last she again heard footsteps, and a few moments later recognised Boyne's well-built figure passing within the zone of lamplight across the way. He was walking hurriedly in the direction of King Street, all unconscious that he was being followed. But a few moments later, with noiseless tread – for he wore rubber heels to his shoes – Durrant came along, his eyes searching eagerly for the girl he loved.

Suddenly he saw her in the shadow, and realised that she was discreetly following him.

The pair exchanged a few words in the crowded King Street, and while Gerald hurried on after Boyne towards the station, the girl followed a little distance behind.

They saw him buying a ticket at the station and also purchase a late edition of the evening paper. Then he descended to the platform of the tube and took a train going towards Piccadilly.

Gerald and Marigold, who had separated, travelled on the same train until, on arrival at Knightsbridge, the man they were watching alighted. Marigold, who had been on the alert at each station, saw him emerge from the next car, while close behind him was Gerald, with whom, of course, he was unacquainted.

Together they followed him along Sloane Street to Pont Street, where he ascended the steps of a smart-looking red-brick house and opened the door with a latchkey.

"Now that's curious!" remarked Gerald when he rejoined the girl. "Did you notice that he entered that house yonder as though it were his own home? I wonder who lives there?"

"We must find out," declared Marigold, highly excited at having tracked Mr. Boyne so far.

"Yes. But I shall be compelled to watch the house and see what happens now," he said. "I mean to follow him to-night wherever he goes. It almost seems as if he lives here – as well as in Hammersmith!"

"Well – he certainly has a latchkey, and this is not a street where they take in lodgers."

"No," he said. "Some of these houses are the legations of the smaller States of Europe. Over there is the Serbian Legation."

"Well, we'll wait in patience," she said. "Fortunately it's a fine night."

"The last time I watched, last week, it came on terribly wet about eleven o'clock," he said, "and I hadn't my mackintosh. When I started out it seemed a perfect night. But just now the weather is so changeable."

On the darker side of the street by the railings, the young people idled together, with a watchful eye upon the long flight of steps which Boyne had ascended. Though the blinds were drawn, it was evident that the comfortable West End house was well lighted, and it was, no doubt, the residence of someone of considerable means. Indeed, it requires a good income to run a house even in Pont Street in these post-bellum days.

The traffic had died down. Few taxis were passing, for as yet the home-coming pleasure seekers were not on their way from the theatres.

For half an hour the pair waited in the shadow, full of eager curiosity. The movements of the mystery-man of Hammersmith were, to say the least, suspicious.

Suddenly, from the basement a young footman appeared, and hurrying along to the end of the road, hailed a taxi and brought it to the door.

Then, as they watched, they saw, a few seconds later, the front door open, and a man in evening dress descended the steps and entered the taxi.

The light from the open door shone upon his face as he halted to speak to the servant, and then, to their amazement, they recognised the man to be Bernard Boyne.

His chameleon-like change staggered them both for a second, but Gerald, ever quick to act, whispered:

"Go home, Marigold. This is very funny. I'll try to follow," and a moment later he had sped away noiselessly into the darkness.

The fact was that his quick eyes had espied a taxi which at that moment had driven up on a stand a little farther down, and without delay he told the man that he wanted him to follow the taxi in front, and that he would give him treble fare for doing so.

"Right y'are, sir!" replied the young Cockney driver, who instantly entered into the spirit of the chase, and already his cab was on the move as Boyne left.

Gerald saw Marigold standing watching the departure, and knowing that she would make the best of her way to Wimbledon, kept his eyes upon the taxi, which was soon out into Knightsbridge, going in the direction of Hyde Park Corner.

Why Boyne, the humble collector of insurance premiums, should possess a latchkey to a house in Pont Street, and emerge from there dressed in evening clothes as a gentleman of means, sorely puzzled Gerald Durrant.

He felt instinctively that he was on the track of some very remarkable sequence of events. This man who disguised himself every night before he took food and drink up to his imprisoned friend, evidently lived a double life. In Pont Street he was a rich man, while in Hammersmith he was poor.

One point of satisfaction was that he was following the unsuspecting man, and would at least know his destination, even if that night he failed to discover the object of his visit.

That he was in a hurry was apparent. He seemed to have spoken excitedly to the young footman – who appeared to be a foreigner – before stepping into the taxi.

Up Park Lane they went, until suddenly the taxi conveying the man of mystery pulled up before a house in Upper Brook Street, while the vehicle in which Gerald had followed passed on for some distance before it stopped.

"'E's gone in that 'ouse, sir," said the taxi-man in a low voice.

"Yes, so I see. He may not be long. I'll wait," and he stepped out and strolled a little way in the opposite direction. Meanwhile Boyne had paid his man, who had turned his cab and left.

The house into which Boyne had disappeared was a block of flats, for as he passed he had caught a glimpse of the uniformed porter who had saluted him and followed him to the lift.

The mystery was thereby greatly increased, though many more startling circumstances were yet to be encountered.

Gerald Durrant idled there in the vicinity of the taxi, little dreaming into what a labyrinth of doubt and mystery he had now been drawn.

CHAPTER XI
SPREADING THE NET

Gerald Durrant remained outside the house in Upper Brook Street for more than half an hour. Much puzzled, he stood in a doorway opposite the block of flats into which Boyne had gone.

Marigold was on her way back to Wimbledon Park, and that night he intended to probe the mystery farther.

He waited, and still waited. A neighbouring clock struck the hours. The hall-porter at one o'clock closed the door and switched off the lights, yet Gerald still waited for the insurance agent of Hammersmith to emerge.

That he was known to the hall-porter was apparent, for the man had saluted him. It was strange, to say the least, that the man who was compelled to scrape for a living in Hammersmith should be guest in a fashionable flat in Upper Brook Street.

Bernard Boyne was certainly a man of mystery, for not only did he possess the latchkey of the smart house in Pont Street, but he was also known at that block of expensive flats.

The young fellow lit a fresh cigarette and, leaning against the deep portico of the house opposite, possessed himself in patience. Time went on. A police constable passed and repassed, but did not notice him in the shadow, for he hid his cigarette. All the windows of the great building he was watching were in darkness. It was evident now that Boyne would not come out again before morning.

Yet Durrant, with great pertinacity, waited there through the whole night until, at half-past six, the hall-porter threw open the outer door, and milkmen, the postman, and newspaper boys began to arrive in quick succession. Without bite or sup Gerald waited there till half-past ten, when, full of chagrin at being thus foiled, he was compelled to hurry to his office, getting a wash and a shave on the way.

At lunch he met Marigold as usual, and told her of his failure, whereupon she said:

"I have the afternoon off. I'll go at once and see my aunt, and ascertain when he got back."

This she did, and when that evening Durrant arrived home at Ealing he found a wire awaiting him which told him that when Boyne's housekeeper took him up his early tea as usual, her master had been in bed!

Durrant held his breath. The mystery-man had some means of exit from Upper Brook Street – a back way, without a doubt.

But what was the motive of it all? Why should he pose as penurious in Hammersmith, and wear evening clothes in Mayfair?

That night Durrant went again to Upper Brook Street, and, exploring the rear of the building, found that there was a servants' entrance to the flats which led into a mews, and through a back street. By that Bernard Boyne had, no doubt, walked out while Durrant had been keeping his night vigil.

This fact further impressed both Marigold and her lover that Boyne was not what he represented himself to be.

Durrant set out to probe the mystery, and by dint of ingenious application to the affair, he became on friendly terms with the hall-porter. Truth to tell, Durrant had represented himself to be a demobilised officer who had been in love with a lady who had rented one of the flats. He had discovered her name from the house-agent, and knew that she had married during the war.

From the hall-porter he learned that the man who had passed in was an occasional visitor, but to whom he did not know. He would try and ascertain. The lips of all hall-porters of flats are readily unlocked when their hands are "crossed with silver." And why not? In our post-war civilisation little is effected without a quid pro quo. Even the British Cabinet Minister looks for reward; alas! that it should be so. Patriotism in all the Allied Countries seems synonymous with personal ruin, and those who have realised the fact are the profiteers upon gallant men's lives.

Gerald's discovery at the back of Upper Brook Street brought the pair to a dead end as far as their investigations went.

They met as usual at lunch and discussed the situation. What could be done?

"All I can see, Marigold, is for you to continue your visits constantly to Bridge Place and learn all you can from your aunt," Durrant said. "There is evidently something extraordinary in progress. But what it is we cannot possibly tell without more thorough investigation."

"But what can we do further?" asked the girl.

"I can do nothing just yet, except to receive reports from you," replied Gerald. "You can visit Boyne's house and let me know from time to time what is in progress there."

"But the prisoner upstairs?" she asked. "How can I know more?"

"By watching," was his reply. "Do you know, Marigold, I've been thinking – thinking deeply over the affair. We are both agreed that we intend to fathom the secret of this man. Well, now could you not one evening, when you visit your aunt, be taken suddenly very unwell, and then remain there in the house and watch?"

"Really, Gerald, that's a splendid idea!" exclaimed the girl. "Yet it seems an imposition upon Mr. Boyne."

"I know that. He poses as a man without anything whatever save the commission he collects upon the premiums on the lives of the honest inhabitants of Hammersmith. Yet, as we know, he is in touch with certain people of a much higher class than himself. The house in Pont Street is a great enigma to me. We must elucidate the mystery. That is my object."

"I am ready to work at your orders, Gerald," was the girl's reply, with the genuine love-look in her eyes. "Yes, we will do our utmost to solve this mystery!"

In consequence of this conversation, a few days later Marigold went one afternoon to visit her aunt, old Mrs. Felmore, and in the evening was taken very unwell.

Mr. Boyne, who returned as usual about six o'clock, was told of the girl's illness and went down to the kitchen, where he saw her, and, speaking kindly, asked if he should fetch the doctor.

"No, thank you, Mr. Boyne," the girl answered, rather weakly. "It's awfully good of you, but no doubt I shall be better presently, and able to go home. I have a curious dizziness. It came on quite suddenly."

"Are you subject to it?" he inquired. And then in the next breath asked if he could get her anything.

"My aunt has given me a cup of tea," was her reply. "And I already feel better."

"Don't think of going to Wimbledon to-night unless you feel better," he urged. "Mrs. Felmore can make you up a bed in the spare room."

She thanked him, and though she assured him she would be well enough to go home in an hour or so, she had no intention of returning home that night.

Boyne, on his part, looked weary and worn. His clothes were shabby, and his cheap boots were down at heel and dusty after a long day's tramp in the meaner streets of Hammersmith.

Returning to his sitting-room, he took his bulky insurance books from his pocket. Then he threw off his jacket, sat down to tea in his shirt sleeves, and fed "Nibby," his pet rat.

Mrs. Felmore, like many deaf folk, could tell what was said by watching people's lips. When her employer had left the kitchen, she remarked to her niece:

"Isn't Mr. Boyne a dear nice man? Whenever I feel unwell he is always so ready to get me anything. You know how bad I was with my rheumatism last winter? He wouldn't let me work, but engaged old Mrs. Kirk from the Mall."



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