The Red Widow; or, The Death-Dealers of LondonWilliam Le Queux / Mystery & Detective
Produced by Al Haines.
*THE RED WIDOW*
THE DEATH-DEALERS OF LONDON
*WILLIAM LE QUEUX*
CASSELL AND COMPANY, LTD London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne 1920
1. Concerns a Man in White 2. Who is Mrs. Braybourne? 3. The Game--and its Players 4. Progress of the Plot 5. Contains a Note of Alarm 6. The Locked Room In Hammersmith 7. What Happened in Bridge Place 8. On Loch Lomond 9. A Gentleman named Greig 10. More Mysterious Circumstances 11. Spreading the Net 12. The Person from Upstairs 13. Relates a Strange Conversation 14. On Saturday Night 15. Carries the Mystery Farther 16. Baiting the Trap 17. News from Lancaster Gate 18. The Coup and its Consequence 19. What Happened to Gerald 20. The Room of Evil 21. Lost Days 22. From out the Past 23. The Cry in the Night 24. Hard Pressed 25. The Recluse 26. Get Rid of the Girl! 27. The Day After To-Morrow 28. At the Window 29. On Thin Ice 30. Through the Darkness
*THE RED WIDOW*
*CONCERNS A MAN IN WHITE*
I can't understand what it all means. The whole thing is a mystery--_agreat mystery_! I have my suspicions--grave suspicions! declared thepretty blue-eyed girl emphatically.
Of what? asked the young man strolling at her side along the sunnytowing-path beside the Thames between Kew and Richmond.
Well--I hardly know, was her hesitating response. But I don't likeauntie to remain in that house any longer, Gerald. Some evil lurksthere; I'm sure of it!
Her companion smiled.
Are you quite sure you are not mistaken, Marigold? he asked in adubious tone. Are you absolutely certain that you really saw Mr. Boyneon Thursday night?
Why, haven't I already told you exactly what I saw? asserted the girlexcitedly. I've related in detail all I know. And I repeat that Idon't like auntie being there any longer.
Well, said the young man, as they strolled leisurely along near thewater's edge on that Sunday afternoon in summer, their intention beingto take tea at Richmond, if what you have described is an actual fact,then I certainly do think we ought to watch the man very closely.
You don't doubt me--do you? exclaimed the girl, with quick resentment.
Not in the least, Marigold, he replied, halting and looking straightinto her clear, almost child-like eyes. Please do not misunderstandme. But what you have said is so extraordinary that--well, it seems allso weird and amazing!
That's just it. The affair is extraordinary, and, as I've said, I hopeauntie will leave the place. She has a very good post as housekeeper toMr. Boyne. Her affliction is against her, I know, but there is somethingin progress at Bridge Place that is too mysterious for my liking.
Then let us watch and try to discover what it really is, said GeraldDurrant determinedly.
Will you really help me? she asked eagerly.
Of course. Rely upon me. If I can be of any assistance to you whereyour aunt is concerned, Marigold, I shall only be too delighted. Surelyyou know that! he added, looking again into her eyes with an expressionof unspoken admiration and affection.
She murmured her thanks, and the pair--a handsome pair, indeed, theywere--went on along the gravelled path in a silence that remainedunbroken for some minutes.
Marigold Ramsay was just twenty-one, and an uncommonly pretty girl,though unconsciously so. Men turned to glance a second time at her asshe passed. Though a typical London business girl who carried herleather dispatch-case on weekdays, she bore an air of distinction whichwas unusual in one of her class. Her clear, deep blue eyes, her opencountenance, her grace of carriage, her slim suppleness, and thesmallness of her hands and feet, all combined to create about her an airof well-bred elegance which was enhanced by a natural grace and charm.There was nothing loud about her, either in her speech or in her dress.She spoke softly, and she wore a plain coat and skirt of navy gaberdine,and a neat little velvet toque which suited her admirably. She was,indeed, as beautiful as she was elegant, and as intelligent as she wascharming.
Many a young man about Lombard Street--where Marigold was employed inthe head office of a great joint-stock bank--gazed upon her withadmiration as she went to and fro from business, but with only one ofthem, the man at her side, had she ever become on terms of friendship.
Though Gerald Durrant had spoken no word of love, the pair had almostunconsciously become fast friends. He was a tall, good-looking youngfellow, with well-brushed hair and a small moustache carefully trimmed,in whose rather deep-set eyes was an expression of kindlygood-fellowship. Erect and athletic, his clear-cut features weretypical of the honest, clean-minded young Englishman who, thoughwell-born, was compelled, like Marigold, to earn his living in the City.
He had served in Flanders through the first year of war, but, beinginvalided out, had been since employed as confidential secretary to thehead of a great firm of importers in Mincing Lane.
As, in his well-cut grey tweeds and straw hat, he strode beside her insilence in the sunshine, he reflected. What she had told him wasutterly amazing. The whole affair was, indeed, a mystery.
Marigold had first met Gerald at a little corner table of a certainsmall teashop in Fenchurch Street, where she daily took her frugalluncheon.
One morning as he sat opposite to her he politely passed the salt. Fromthat chance meeting they had each day chatted at the Cedar Tea-Rooms,gradually becoming friends, until one Saturday, he had invited her toHampton Court, and they had spent the afternoon in the old-world gardensof the Palace so reminiscent of Henry the Eighth and Cardinal Wolsey.
That day's excursion had frequently been repeated, for Marigold's greatblue eyes attracted the young man, until one day he cleverly arrangedthat she should meet his sister--with whom he lived out at Ealing--andthe outcome was an invitation to tea on the following Sunday. Thus thechance-made acquaintance ripened until they found themselves lookingeagerly forward to lunch time on five days each week, when they wouldrush to their meeting-place to chatter and enjoy the hour's relaxationfrom work. Hence it was not surprising that Gerald had fallen violentlyin love with Marigold, though he had never summoned up sufficientcourage to declare his affection.
What you've told me is a problem which certainly requiresinvestigation, he remarked reflectively after a long silence. If youraunt is in any real danger, then she should, I quite agree, leave thehouse. At present, however, I cannot see that she is, or why she shouldknow anything. It is our duty to watch and to form our ownconclusions.
Ah! cried the girl gratefully, it's really awfully kind of you,Gerald, to promise to help me. As you know, I have very few men friends,and not one, save yourself, in whom I would place this confidence.
You know me, Marigold, he said, with a smile of satisfaction. Youknow that I will do all I can to help you to solve this extraordinaryproblem.
The problem which the girl had placed before her admirer was certainly amost puzzling one--sufficiently puzzling, indeed, to excite thecuriosity of anybody to whom it was presented.
Had Marigold Ramsay but foreseen the terrible vortex of uncertainty andperil into which their inquiries would lead them, it is probable thatshe would have hesitated ere she embarked upon an investigation so fullof personal risk to both.
In her ignorance of the cunningly-devised counter-plot, which shieldedfrom exposure and justice one of the most diabolical and remarkableconspiracies of modern times, she and her admirer entered cheerfullyupon a policy which led to many exciting and perilous adventures, someof which I intend to chronicle in these pages.
That you, my reader, shall clearly understand the cause of MarigoldRamsay's suspicions, it will be as well to here unfold certain queercircumstances which had happened on the previous Thursday night.
Mr. Bernard Boyne, whom Marigold viewed with such distinct suspicion,was a work-a-day man who tramped daily the bustling pavements ofHammersmith, Chiswick, and Bedford Park as an insurance agent, and waswell known and very highly respected. He lived in a cheaply-furnished,nine-roomed house in Bridge Place, Hammersmith, a dingy third-classneighbourhood. The exterior of the place was, in summer, renderedsomewhat more artistic than its neighbours in the same row by the dustyVirginia creeper which covered its walls and hung untrimmed about itswindows. Upon the railings was fastened a brass plate, always wellpolished, which bore the name Bernard Boyne--Insurance Agent.
Mr. Boyne had resided in that house for some six years. He was wellknown to all the tradespeople in the neighbourhood--for he paid hisbills weekly--as well as by the working classes whose policies he was sofrequently effecting, and whose small premiums he so assiduouslycollected.
He was agent for several insurance companies of second-class standing.He was also in touch with two well known underwriters at Lloyd's whowould insure his commercial clients against practically anything--exceptbankruptcy.
Year in, year out, he was to be seen, always respectably, and evennattily dressed, passing actively in and about the neighbourhood, keenlyon the alert for any new clients and any fresh proposals.
Probably Mr. Boyne was one of the best known of local personalities. Hewas a regular attendant at the parish church of St. George the Martyr,Hammersmith, where he acted as sidesman. Further, he was honorarysecretary to quite a number of charitable organisations and committeesin Hammersmith, and in consequence had become acquainted with most ofthe wealthiest residents.
Busy Boyne--for that was what the people of Hammersmith calledhim--was a widower, and lived in that small unpretentious house, a verydeaf old woman named Mrs. Felmore--the aunt of Marigold Ramsay--lookingafter him. For several years she had performed the domestic duties, andshe did them well, notwithstanding her infirmity.
Now this is what happened.
On Thursday night, on his return after a strenuous day at about teno'clock, Boyne had entered his small sitting-room and taken his bulkynotebook and papers from his pocket. Then he had thrown off his coatand sat down to the cold meal which Mrs. Felmore had prepared for himprior to retiring. Though the house was so dingy, yet everythingappertaining to its master's comfort was well ordered, as shown by thefact that the evening paper was lying neatly folded, ready for his hand.
Beneath the hissing incandescent gas-jet Bernard Boyne looked very pale,his eyes deeply set, his brow furrowed and careworn. He seemed wearyand out-of-sorts.
Fool! he grunted aloud to himself. I'm growing nervous! I supposeit is that big cheque that I had to-day--seven thousand, eighthundred--the biggest I've ever had. I wonder if I ought to tell Lilla?
The room was the typical home of a man earning an income on commissionjust sufficient to enable him to rub along in comfort. It wascertainly not the room of a man who was receiving cheques for such sumsas seven thousand, eight hundred pounds.
At first glance Bernard Boyne, as he stood there in his shirt-sleeves,was an excellent type of the steady, reliable insurance agent, with nosoul above proposals and premiums. They constituted his sole aim inlife, now that his dear wife was dead.
Nobody suspected the man who so piously passed round the bag in St.George the Martyr on Sundays to be a man of mystery. Nobody, indeed,would ever have dreamed that the active man in question would be placingcheques to his account of such value as seven thousand odd pounds.
I wonder how long I shall remain here? he whispered to himself. Iwonder what all these good people would say if they but knew--eh? _Ifthey knew_! But, happily, they don't know! He chuckled to himself.
He was silent for a moment as he crossed to rearrange the dusty oldVenetian blinds.
Then he turned to a half-open cupboard beside the fireplace, and from ittook a small wire cage from which he released a tame white rat, whichinstantly ran up his arm and settled upon his shoulder.
Poor little Nibby! he exclaimed, tenderly stroking its sharp pinksnout with his forefinger. Have I neglected you? Poor littlefellow!--a prisoner all day! But if I let you out when I'm away somenasty terrier might get you--eh? Come let me atone for my neglect.
And he placed his pet upon the table, over which the rodent ran toinvestigate the remains of the meal.
Boyne stood watching his pet nibbling at a scrap of sausage.
Ah! he gasped in a whisper. If they knew--but they will never know.They _can't_!
A few minutes later his actions were, to say the least, strange.
He flung himself into the old armchair from which the flock stuffingprotruded from the worn-out American cloth, and unbuttoning his dustyboots, took them off. Then, in his socks, he crept upstairs, and on thelanding listened at the deaf old woman's door. Sounds of heavy snoringapparently satisfied him.
Back again he returned to the parlour, and with a key opened theopposite cupboard beside the fireplace, from which he took a very long,loose coat which seemed to be made of white alpaca. This he shook outand submitted to close scrutiny. It was shaped like a monk's habit,with a leather strap around the waist--a curious garment, for it had ahood attached, with two slits in it for the eyes.
After careful examination of the strange garment, he put it on over hishead, drawing down the hood over his eyes, which gave him a hideousappearance--like the ghost of an ancient Inquisitor of Spain, or amember of the mediaeval Misericordia Society of Italy, dressed in whiteinstead of black.
Thus attired, he fumbled beneath in his pocket, and then noiselesslyascended the two flights of stairs to an attic door upon which was thecircular brass plate of a Yale lock. This he opened, and passingwithin, closed the door softly behind him.
Bernard Boyne naturally believed himself alone in the house with oldMrs. Felmore sound asleep--but, truth to tell, _he was not_!
As he ascended the stairs, Marigold's pale face peered around thecorner. The shock of seeing such a hideous ghostly form moving silentlyupstairs proved almost too much for her. But clinging on to thebanisters, she managed to repress the cry of alarm which rose to herlips, and she stood there rooted to the spot--full of wonder andbewilderment. She listened breathlessly, still standing in the darkpassage which led to the kitchen stairs. Then she detected the sound ofthe key going into the lock of the upstairs room where she knew Mr.Boyne kept his private papers.
But was it Mr. Boyne? Or was it an intruder who had adopted that garbin order to frighten any person he might encounter? Besides, why shouldMr. Boyne assume such a strange disguise before entering the room wherehis business papers were stored?
Now upon that summer night Marigold had called about nine o'clock tovisit her aunt, who had in years past been as a mother to her, to have asnack of supper, as she often did. Afterwards she had helped her auntto prepare Mr. Boyne's frugal meal. Then old Mrs. Felmore, feelingrather unwell, had gone to bed, leaving her niece in the kitchen towrite an urgent letter to Gerald, which she wanted to post beforemidnight.
As she finished the letter, she had heard someone enter, and notdesiring that Mr. Boyne should know of her presence there at that hour,she had moved about quietly, and was just about to escape from the housewhen she had seen that strangely-garbed figure ascending the stairs.
The girl's first impulse had been to waken her aunt and raise an alarmthat an intruder had entered the place. But on seeing that the supperhad been eaten, and that Mr. Boyne's hat and coat lay upon the sofa, sheat once decided that the figure that had ascended the stairs to thelocked room was actually that of the master of the house.
Why is he dressed like that? she asked herself in a whisper, as shestood in the front parlour. What can it mean?
She glanced around the room. The cupboard beside the fireplace, whichstood open, and from which Boyne had taken his strange disguise, caughther eye. She had never before seen that cupboard open, for her aunt hadalways told her that Mr. Boyne kept some of his important insurancepapers there. Therefore, with curiosity, the girl approached it, findingit practically empty, save for a woman's big racoon muff, and with it aphotograph--that of a handsome, well-preserved woman of about forty,across the front of which had been scrawled in a thin, feminine hand thesignature, Lilla, January, 1919.
Who was Lilla? She wondered.
Mr. Boyne she knew as a pleasant, easy-going man, full of generosity sofar as his limited means allowed. He was a widower, who frequentlyreferred to his poor dear wife, and would descant upon her goodqualities and how affectionately they had lived together for ten years.
The photograph, which she examined beneath the light, was quite a newone, and dated--hence it could not be that of the late Mrs. Boyne.
I'll come back and tell auntie to-morrow, she said to herself. Sheought to know--or one night she'll see him and get a shock like I'vehad. And her heart is not too strong. Yes--I must warn her--then nodoubt she'll watch.
With those words she dabbed her hair in front of the cheap mirror overthe mantelshelf, and then treading on tiptoe, went to the front door andlet herself out.
This was the strange story Marigold had related to Gerald Durrant onthat sunny afternoon beside the Thames--a story which had aroused hiscuriosity and held him fascinated.