William Le Queux.

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



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"Yes, auntie, he is," Marigold declared. "But I didn't tell him how bad I feel. I really don't know what has come over me."

"Why not let him call the doctor?"

"Oh, no. I'll be all right soon," she said cheerfully; and then she reseated herself in the summer twilight near the open window.

At half-past eight o'clock Bernard Boyne, having washed and changed his clothes, went out.

Marigold fell to wondering where he might be going. It had been arranged that Gerald should be on watch outside the house that night, but when they had met at lunch, he had told her that he was compelled to accompany his principal to Birmingham that afternoon, for a conference was to be held in that city on the following day.

"I may be away for a day or two, dear," he had said. "But in the meanwhile discover all you can."

Boyne went direct from Hammersmith to Pont Street, where he found that his wife had gone out to dinner. She would be back soon after ten, the young man-servant informed him.

Therefore he went to his room and put on evening clothes – a very smartly-cut suit with white waist-coat and mother-of-pearl and diamond buttons. As he stood before the long cheval glass, examining himself after he had tied his cravat and put on his coat, the transformation, he thought, was surely complete. Nobody meeting him in that luxuriously furnished house would ever have recognised in him the trudging, hard-working insurance agent of Hammersmith.

He descended to the drawing-room, but his wife did not return till past ten. She was in a strikingly handsome gown of black-and-gold tissue, with a shimmering ornament in her hair, while around her neck was a rope of splendid pearls.

"Well, Lilla!" he exclaimed pleasantly, as he threw himself lazily into a soft arm-chair. "I'm glad you're back early. Where are we to meet Ena?"

"At Murray's, at eleven. Then we go on to the Carlton to supper," was her reply. "Remember our name to-night is Davidson, and we live at Welsford Hall, in Northamptonshire. Ena wants to introduce us to Mrs. Morrison."

"But Mrs. Morrison is likely to meet one of us again, and it might be awkward," the man remarked, as he slowly lit a cigarette.

"She is not likely to meet us again – except at Ena's house – is she?" said his wife, with a curious expression in her narrow eyes.

"No, I suppose not – if all goes right, and there is no hitch," he said reflectively.

"Hitch! How can there be a hitch?" asked Lilla. "Ena will do her part, while you do yours."

"When does Ena propose that the little affair shall be done?" he asked.

"Next Saturday – if that suits you?"

"Saturday," he repeated again reflectively, as he examined his cigarette. "It will take about nine to ten days, so on the following Monday or Tuesday week it should be complete."

"It ought to be, Bernard. We shall soon be wanting more money, you know. We've been spending freely and investing a lot of late.

Ena was here this afternoon. Mrs. Morrison came up from Brighton this morning in order to go to the theatre with her, and meet us at supper afterwards. You can tell her how you hunt with the Fitzwilliam and Lord Exeter's hounds. She knows nothing of fox-hunting, and it will impress her."

"Yes. Ena has told me the woman is just the widow of a Glasgow man who has plenty of money, but who knows practically nothing of English society."

"Why Ena is so keen that we should meet the woman, I can't think," Lilla remarked.

"Well, to tell you the truth, I suggested it," was his reply. "When she invites her to dine we shall be there. It looks better for Ena to have other guests, especially if – well, if anything happened."

"I hope nothing untoward will happen," she exclaimed quickly.

"No," he laughed. "Don't worry, my dear. It is all plain sailing. We shall cash a big cheque before long – depend upon it! But time is getting on. We ought to get along to Murray's and meet them on arrival."

Therefore the pair put on their coats, and a taxi being called, they drove to Murray's, where they awaited the arrival of Mrs. Pollen and her guest.

Ten minutes later they came. The red-haired widow was dressed superbly, and wore wonderful beads of Chinese jade. Her companion, handsome and also well-dressed, expressed delight when her hostess introduced her to her old friends, Mr. and Mrs. Davidson. The latter both became extremely affable, appearing very pleased when Ena told them, what they already knew – namely, that she had reserved a table at the Carlton for supper.

Then the four drove in a taxi to Pall Mall, where they had a very pleasant meal.

Mrs. Morrison, of Carsphairn, was a hard-headed and sensible woman. She cared but little for the so-called excitements of society, but that evening she had greatly enjoyed the play, and now as she gazed around at the smart crowd coming in and taking the tables allotted to them, the daring and often magnificent dresses, and the host of good-looking men, it was something of a novelty to her.

"Before my husband's death I travelled a good deal on the Continent," she explained to Mrs. Davidson. "But nowadays I remain mostly in Scotland. I entertain a few people at Carsphairn for the shooting, but beyond that I live very quietly."

"So do we," Lilla replied. "We are just country cousins. Our place is in the wilds of Northamptonshire, and my husband hunts a good deal."

"Ah! Northamptonshire and Leicestershire are the centre of fox-hunting, are they not?" said the Scotch woman, addressing Mr. Davidson.

"Yes. We have several packs within easy reach, though Welsford, where we live, is, strictly speaking, in the Fitzwilliam country. I love hunting," he added.

"My husband even goes cubbing at four o'clock in the morning sometimes," laughed Mrs. Davidson.

"Ah! He is evidently an enthusiast!" Mrs. Morrison agreed. "My husband was a fisherman, and I confess I had to go with him on some very dull expeditions in the north of Scotland and in Ireland."

"That's the worst of men," Lilla declared. "If they take up hunting, fishing, or golf, it becomes an obsession. They talk of nothing else."

And so the chatter about hunting and hunting men continued, apparently to the intense amusement of Ena Pollen – or "Mrs. Morrison" as she was known to the Manchester solicitor and the doctors who had pronounced her life to be a "first-class" one.

The orchestra was playing one of the latest waltzes, and the big restaurant was filled with chatter and laughter. Surely none who sat there that night and noticed the three ladies and their male companion as they drank their champagne, and ate that supper dish of the London restaurants, mousse de jambon served from the ice, would ever have dreamed that a most diabolical plot was in progress, a conspiracy the most subtle and fiendish that the evil mind of man could ever devise.

Ena Pollen was, of course, the life and soul of the party. Very handsome, with her auburn hair and her bizarre dress, she was regarded by half the people in the restaurant. Some of them knew her by sight as a regular habitu?e of the smart restaurants and dance-clubs, for it was part of the great game which the heartless trio was playing for her to be remarked and regarded as a woman of outstanding grace and beauty.

Men courted her society, and in more than one instance – if the truth be whispered – had been hurried to the grave in consequence.

The quartette, after a delightful meal, took their coffee and Cointreau at a little table set beneath a palm out in the hall. Mrs. Morrison had become as charmed with Mrs. Davidson as she had been with Ena Pollen.

"You must come up and see me at Carsphairn," she urged Lilla. "No doubt your husband, living in the country, shoots. I can give him some grouse in the season. We have a fair amount of game on our moor at Balmaclellan."

"I shall be delighted, Mrs. Morrison," was Davidson's reply; as he lifted his eyes to Mrs. Pollen they exchanged significant glances.

Then, after a merry chat, Ena suddenly said:

"Can't all three of you dine with me at home one evening? You are not going North yet, are you, Mrs. Morrison? Do come. What about next Saturday?"

"I'm going back to Brighton to-morrow," was her reply.

"But you can easily run up on Saturday. Do. Let us dine early and go to a show together, eh?" she suggested with her usual enthusiasm. "You'll come, Lilla, won't you?"

Mrs. Davidson hesitated. She replied that she feared that she had an engagement that evening, and her husband was certain that he had.

"Oh, now, do come!" urged the Red Widow. "If Mrs. Morrison will come, you really must come."

Then, after a few half-hearted arguments and protests, Mrs. Morrison accepted the invitation and the Davidsons did likewise. And so the quiet little dinner was fixed, Ena promising to get a box at some theatre.

"Then we will go to Murray's or Giro's afterwards," she added.

Later, when Boyne and his wife were together in a taxi on their way to Pont Street, Lilla turned to him, and said:

"It all seems to go well if you can be ready by Saturday. If you can't, then we shall be in the cart!"

"Leave it all to me," he said in a hard, changed voice. "We shall be at Upper Brook Street on Saturday, and I hope we shall be successful. It won't be my fault if we fail."

CHAPTER XII
THE PERSON FROM UPSTAIRS

Marigold Ramsay, still pretending her sudden and unaccountable illness, lay upon a narrow iron bedstead in the spare room of Bernard Boyne's house, listening, and unable to sleep. She was there as a watch-dog.

Time after time she heard the bells of St. Paul's, Hammersmith, chiming the hours, but there was no sound below. Mr. Boyne had not returned.

The night was sultry and her window was slightly open. As she lay awake, she wondered what strange secret could be hidden in that house of mystery. Her aunt suspected nothing. That was evident, or she would have mentioned it to her. To old Mrs. Felmore, Bernard Boyne was a good and patient master, the persevering honest man which all Hammersmith judged him to be. None dreamed that he led such a curious double life of dusty tramping by day, and enjoying himself in the gay haunts of the West End by night.

It was nearly half-past two when a taxi set him down at the end of Hammersmith Bridge, and he walked to that house covered with virginia creeper. Not recollecting the fact that Marigold might still be there, and knowing that old Mrs. Felmore would not hear him enter, he placed his key in the latch and entered, closing the door heavily, as was his wont.

Marigold, on the alert, heard him. He went along the narrow, stuffy passage into his sitting-room. The girl sprang from her bed, put on the dressing-gown her aunt had lent her, and opened the door noiselessly. She heard the click of a lock in the room below, and knew that Boyne was giving Nibby his food, as he did every night without fail. Mrs. Felmore always left him something, meat or biscuit, to give the tame rat each night before he retired.

"Nibby" was Mr. Boyne's weird obsession; Mrs. Felmore hated it, but it was in its cage living in the cupboard by day, and allowed to run about the room at night, nibbling the evening newspaper or the old-fashioned furniture, for it was as destructive as all its race. One day Mrs. Felmore found that it had gnawed the corner of the carpet, while on the next she discovered that it had made a hole into the door of the cupboard opposite that in which it lived. And rat-holes are unsightly, to say the least.

As Marigold listened she heard Mr. Boyne speaking to his pet.

"Now then, you've had enough, Nibby! Get back, you elusive little dear!" And she heard him chasing him across the floor.

Then he unlocked another cupboard, and a few minutes later he came out into the passage and ascended the stairs. In consequence she closed her own door noiselessly, slipped the bolt, and stood listening. He passed her door, and then ascended the next flight of stairs, therefore she reopened her door instantly and, looking out, saw his form disappearing round the corner of the next landing.

She held her breath. He was dressed in that long hooded cloak of white, just as she had seen him on that well-remembered night weeks ago. He was on his way to that locked room, and carried in his hand food for its imprisoned occupant!

Dare she follow him? She was there at Gerald's suggestion, and it was for her to discover all she could. As she listened she heard the key being put into the Yale lock of that strong door at the top of the stairs. She heard him enter, the latch clicking behind him.

Then she heard strange cries – cries of surprise and rage – human cries!

Summoning courage she crept noiselessly after him, listening intently. There were no sounds of voices – only those strange cries – though, having ascended the second flight of stairs, she could see a streak of light beneath the door, and could hear him moving about within. Suddenly, just as she was about to ascend the third flight, she heard him approach the door and open it. Instantly she drew back and flew down into her room. And none too quickly, for a second later they would have encountered each other face to face.

Boyne, unsuspicious of being watched, for so occupied was he that he had forgotten Marigold's presence in the house, returned to his sitting-room, divested himself of the hideous disguise which he always wore when visiting the locked room, and then reascended to bed.

The girl lay awake for hours until, wearied out, she fell asleep till her aunt brought her some tea.

"Don't let Mr. Boyne know that I've stayed here to-night, auntie," she said, getting up hurriedly. "I'll get away before he comes down. I don't want him to know I've been so ill."

The old woman read her lips and nodded, saying in a whisper:

"As soon as you're gone, dear, I'll make the bed."

"I don't want any breakfast. I'll get to the City early, and have it there."

And this she did.

When Boyne came down to breakfast he asked his housekeeper how her niece was, to which she replied that she had recovered at about ten o'clock on the previous night and gone home to Wimbledon.

Saturday was always an "off" day with Mr. Boyne. Working people did not pay their weekly insurance premiums till Monday. Saturday is the half-day with the working class as Wednesday is with the shop-keeping community. Now on that particular Saturday Bernard Boyne, at eleven o'clock in the forenoon, sent Mrs. Felmore to King Street to buy him a tin of tomato soup. He wrote down the brand on an old envelope. And he wanted nothing else.

"If one grocer has not got it, another has, no doubt. If you can't get it in Hammersmith go down to Chiswick or Bedford Park," he said. "You'll find it somewhere."

And the old woman, whose shopping successes were always marvellous considering her stone deafness, went forth, little dreaming that such a brand as that he had written down was non-existent.

So all the morning until well into the afternoon Bernard Boyne had the house entirely to himself. As soon as she had gone, Boyne put on his white disguise and, rushing upstairs to the locked room, opened it.

"Now then!" he shouted roughly. "Are you ready? Have you dressed yet? No – you haven't. Now put it on – quick. Come out and get some air. It's stifling in this place!"

He waited at the door, whereupon a white figure, dressed exactly the same as himself, emerged, and slowly and painfully came down the stairs.

The two weird figures, linked arm in arm, descended to Boyne's parlour, whereupon in an authoritative tone he ordered the strange creature to be seated.

"Sit there!" he said. "And I'll open the window. You want a bit of air and exercise."

"Food! Food!" came the words, weak and squeaky behind the hideous mask.

"Very well. I'll go and get you some. But you can't eat it yet. Not till you're back again in your own room. Food!" he said roughly, with a sneer. "You're always wanting food and water. Fortunately the cistern is up there, or I'd have to carry up every drop for you. But your food I never forget, do I, eh?" he shouted, as though the strange figure was as deaf as old Mrs. Felmore.

The hooded figure, huddled in the arm-chair, only shrugged its shoulders.

From the voice it was impossible to tell the sex of the individual. The tone was weak, squeaky, and quite unnatural.

"Now, tell me, what have you done?" asked Boyne. "How is it progressing? I know you must be lonely sometimes, but it can't be helped. You are not fit to mix with us, you know. And you exist upon my charity. I am always good to you! Understand that!"

"I – I know," squeaked the figure, whose white cloak was soiled and stained, while those two long slits for the eyes under the pointed hood gave it a most weird and forbidding appearance.

"I hope you appreciate all I've done for you," Boyne went on. "If I had not risked all this, where would you have been – tried and executed in the hangman's noose. But I have done my best – though often you don't appreciate it."

"I – I do!" cried the voice from behind that strange disguise. "And I do all that you tell me," it whined.

"Very well," laughed Boyne. "We'll let it rest at that. The failure you lately had put me right in the cart. We mustn't have another. Remember that! Let it sink into your brain. You are clever, I know. But a single slip and both of us will go where we don't want to!"

"I know! I know! Yes – yes," replied the huddled figure. "But it was the weather – always the weather. And it is so hot under that roof."

"Weather be hanged!" replied Boyne. "This is winter – cold winter! – and yet you believe it to be summer."

As a matter of fact, it was hot summer weather, yet Boyne was trying to impress upon his companion that heat was cold, and vice versa.

The two weird figures in white cloaks, with only slits for the eyes, like Brothers of the Misericordia of Medi?val Italy, only in white, instead of black, sat opposite each other. Boyne was giving to his prisoner a breath of air, and a change in his living room.

A few minutes later the strange occupant of the locked room uttered the single word:

"Nibby?"

"Oh, yes, dear little Nibby is here," was Boyne's reply.

Rising, he fumbled beneath his cloak, and with his key unlocked the cupboard and opened the cage, from which the tame rat darted down and across the room. A second later he was sniffing the cloak of the figure from upstairs, running around the hem of the cloak with his little pink nose, while the wearer of the cloak put down a hand to be smelt, saying:

"Nibby, my dear little Nibby, that I have lost so long!"

In all London no scene in broad daylight could have been more weird than that at noon on a summer morning in Bridge Place, Hammersmith.

Boyne, the mystery man, held in such high esteem from Addison Road to Kew, sat there with the poor crouching figure as his victim. Behind those long narrow slits in the white fabric showed a pair of dark, deep-sunken eyes – eyes that were inhuman and unnatural.

The voice from behind the mask was metallic and squeaky. Whether the person was a man or a woman could not be conjectured. The high-pitched note was feminine.

"Am I not good to you to allow you this little relaxation?" asked Boyne. "You don't often get it, I admit, for the old deaf crone is always about, and I can seldom get rid of her."

"I – I felt – I felt very ill – last week. Days ago!" croaked the mysterious occupant of the locked room.

"I go up to you every day. You never complained. You are usually asleep when I come up."

"You come up at night. But all day I look out from the window over the roofs towards the river."

"River! What do you mean? There is no river here. It is a desert – a desert of bricks and mortar. You dream."

"Yes – yes. I dream! I – I'm always dreaming," was the response.

It was evident that Boyne held his half-imbecile prisoner completely in his power, and that all the orders of the insurance agent were obeyed.

Into the room strayed a ray of summer sunlight across the threadbare green carpet, lighting up the dingy old place.

The stranger from upstairs saw it, and squeaked:

"Look! It's summer – summer!"

"Summer!" cried the man who held him enthralled. "You're dreaming! It's winter. We get sun in winter sometimes. Surely you know that – dense as you are."

"I'm not dense," came the protest. "I do all you ask – fine jobs, too."

"You're dense about sunshine," Boyne repeated.

"Ah! yes. But not about the rats. Where's Nibby?"

Boyne caught the little animal and gave it into the hands of the strange figure, who stroked its sleek coat.

Suddenly the weird form in the soiled white disguise sprang to its feet without warning, and, facing its jailer, shrieked:

"Ah! But who are you? Who are you? I'm beginning to realise the truth at last —yes – at last!"



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