The red widow; or, the d.., p.2
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       The Red Widow; or, The Death-Dealers of London, p.2

          

  *CHAPTER II*

  *WHO IS MRS. BRAYBOURNE?*

  Bernard Boyne was certainly a mystery man in Hammersmith, yet nobodysuspected it. In all the years he had lived in the neighbourhood hisactions had never aroused a single breath of suspicion.

  In pious black he passed the collection bag around to the congregationof St. George the Martyr each Sunday morning, and afterwards, with adeep bow, handed the bag to the rubicund vicar of his parish.

  Often he had been approached to serve upon the municipality of theborough, but he had always declined because of stress of work and for"family" reasons. Mr. Boyne could have achieved the highest localhonours, aldermanic and otherwise, had he cared for them, butnotwithstanding his great popularity, he was ever retiring, and evenanxious to efface himself.

  When that night he descended the stairs of his house in Bridge Place,all unconscious that he had been observed ascending them, he entered hislittle parlour, where he divested himself of the ugly white overall andlocked it away, together with the woman's muff and the photograph. Thenhe paced the room in indecision, ignorant that Marigold had only vacatedit a few minutes before.

  He caught his pet, Nibby, after several attempts, and having replacedhim in his cage, again stood with knit brows, still apparently uncertainhow to act. He was in a bad humour, for now and then he utteredimprecations beneath his breath. Whatever had occurred upstairs had nodoubt upset him. A further imprecation fell from his lips as he cursedhis luck, and then, with sudden resolve, he resumed his boots, took hisfelt hat and stick, turned out the gas, and, going out into the narrowhall, extinguished the light and left the house.

  He was in a bad temper on that warm summer's night as he strodehurriedly to the Hammersmith Broadway station, whence he took ticket toSloane Square.

  "Rotten luck! Lionel is a fool!" he declared to himself viciously, ashe approached the pigeon-hole to take his ticket. "But one can't haveall the good things of life. One must fail sometimes. And yet," headded, "I can't think why I've failed. But so long as it isn't a badomen, I don't care! Why should I?"

  And he took his ticket and descended the stairs to the train.

  On arrival at Sloane Square he walked along to Pont Street to a large,red-brick house, into which he admitted himself with the latchkey uponhis chain, a key very similar to that of the locked room in BridgePlace.

  In the well-furnished hall he encountered a smart, good-looking Frenchlady's maid.

  "Ah! Good-evening, Annette. Is Madame at home?" he asked.

  "Oui, monsieur," the girl promptly replied. "Madame is upstairs in theboudoir."

  Boyne, who was evidently no stranger there, hung up his hat and passedupstairs to a room on the second floor, a cosy, tastefully-furnishedapartment, where, at a table upon which stood a reading-lamp with agreen silk shade, a handsome, dark-haired woman in a pearl-grey eveningfrock sat writing a letter.

  "Hallo, Lilla! I'm glad you haven't gone to bed!" he exclaimed. "Iwant to have a chat with you. I met Annette downstairs. A pity thatinfernal girl hasn't gone to her room. I don't want her to overhearanything. Recollect Celine!"

  "I'll send the girl to bed," said the woman, pressing an electricbutton. "Anything wrong?"

  "Nothing very seriously wrong," was his reply.

  And at his words the woman, who had betrayed alarm at sight of him, gavea sigh of relief.

  Bernard Boyne flung himself into a silk-covered easy-chair, and,clasping his hands behind his head, gazed around the luxurious littleroom. It was, indeed, very different to his own surroundings in drab,work-a-day Hammersmith. Here taste and luxury were displayed on everyhand; a soft, old-rose carpet, with hangings and upholstery to match--awoman's den which had been furnished regardless of expense by one of thebest firms in the West End. Truth to tell, that elegant West End housewas his own, and the handsome woman, Lilla, though she passed as Mrs.Braybourne, and was very popular in quite a good set, was his own wife.

  Husband and wife lived apart. They did so for a purpose. Bernard was ahard-working insurance agent, a strict Churchman, perfectly upright andhonest, though he lived his struggling life in Hammersmith. Truly, the_menage_ in Pont Street was both unusual and curious. Boyne, known tothe servants as Mr. Braybourne, was very often away for weeks at a time.Then suddenly he would return and spend a week with his wife, beingabsent, however, all day. Neither dear old Mrs. Felmore nor all his widecircle of Hammersmith friends ever dreamed that he kept up anotherestablishment in one of the best streets in London, a thoroughfare wherea few doors away on either side were the legations of certain importantEuropean States.

  "My dear Lilla, we can't be too careful," he said, with a kindly smile."Our business is a very ticklish one. Ena agrees with me that Annette,your maid, has picked up too much English, and in consequence is adanger."

  "Rubbish, my clear old Bernard!" laughed the handsome woman, upon whosefingers sparkled several valuable rings. "All that we need is toexercise due discretion."

  "I know. When the game is crooked one has to be all the more careful."

  "You don't seem to be in the sweetest of tempers to-night," remarked hiswife, rather piqued. His visit was unexpected, and to her it portendedunpleasantness. Not because discord ever existed between them. On thecontrary, they were bound together by certain secrets which neither onenor the other dared to disclose. Lilla Boyne feared her husband toexactly the same extent that he feared her.

  In that house in Pont Street, Mr. Boyne kept his well-cut suits, hisevening clothes, his opera hat, and his expensive suit-case marked"B.B.," for on entry there he at once effaced his identity as the humbleinsurance agent, and became Bernard Braybourne, a man of means, andhusband of the good-looking woman who in the course of five or six yearshad been taken up by quite a number of well-known people.

  "I didn't expect you to-night," she remarked rather wearily. "I thoughtyou'd have been here yesterday."

  "I couldn't come. Sorry!" he replied.

  "To-night I went to dine at Lady Betty's. You accepted, you know. So Iapologised and said you had been called suddenly to Leeds last night,"she said. "That idea of your candidature at Leeds at the next electionworks famously. You have to go and meet your committee, I tell them,and it always satisfies the curious. All of them hope you'll get in atthe by-election when old Sammie dies, as he must very soon. They saythe doctors have only given him three months more."

  "Then before that date I'll have to retire from the contest," remarkedher husband, with a grin.

  "Oh! I'll watch that for you all right. Have you got that cheque?"

  "Yes--to-day. It came from my new solicitor--seven thousand, eighthundred!"

  "Good! I'm glad they've paid up. I began to fear that there might besome little hitch. They were so long-winded."

  "So did I, to tell you the truth. But it's all right, and the newlawyer, a smart young fellow in the City, suspects nothing. I'vealready sent him his fee--so that's settled him."

  "Will you employ him again?"

  "I never employ a solicitor a second time, my dear Lilla. That would bea fatal mistake," was his reply. "But what I came to tell you mainly isthat I've had a failure--a mysterious failure! Things haven't turnedout exactly as I expected they would."

  "Failure!" gasped the woman, with disappointment upon her dark, handsomeface. "Then we must postpone it? How annoying!"

  "Yes. But perhaps it's all for the best, Lilla. There was an element ofdanger. I told you that from the first."

  "Danger! Rubbish!" declared his wife, with boldness, the diamondsflashing upon her fingers. "There's no danger! Of that I'm quiteconvinced. There was much more in that other little affair last winter.I was full of apprehension then--though I never told you of it."

  "Well, at any rate, I haven't succeeded in the little business I've beenattempting this last fortnight, so we'll have to postpone it."

  "Perhaps your failure is due to the presence of your deaf old lady inthe house," laughed his wife. "I passed the place in the car about afortnight ago. Ugh! What a house!" and she shuddered.

  "Yes, you might say so if you lived there and ate Mrs. Felmore's coldsausage for your supper, as I have to-night. Yet it must be done. Ifone makes money one has to make some sacrifice, especially if the moneyis made--well, not exactly on the square, shall we say?" And hegrinned.

  * * * * *

  Away in North Wales three days later.

  A beautiful moonlit evening by the Irish Sea. Over the Great Orme themoon shone brilliantly across the calm waters lazily lapping the bay ofLlandudno, which was filled at the moment with an overflowing crowd ofholiday folk, mostly from Yorkshire and Lancashire.

  All the hotels and boarding houses were crowded out, and there werestories of belated trippers, many of whom were on their first seasideholiday after the stress of war, being compelled to sleep in bathingmachines.

  The lamps along the promenade were all aglow, the pier blazed withlight, and across the bay came the strains of the orchestra playingselections from the latest revue.

  In the big lounge of the Beach Hotel, which faces the sea in the centreof the bay, sat a well-preserved, middle-aged woman in a striking blackdinner gown, trimmed with jade-coloured ninon, and wearing a beautifuljade bangle and ear-rings to match. The visitor, whose hair wasremarkable because of its bright chestnut hue--almost red, indeed--hadbeen there for three weeks. She was a widow, a Mrs. Augusta Morrison,hailing from Carsphairn, in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, whose latehusband had great interests in a big shipbuilding works at Govan.

  Of rather loud type, as befitted the widow of a Scotch shipbuilder whohad commenced life in the shipyard, she dressed extravagantly, greatlyto the envy of the bejewelled wives of a few Lancashire warmillionaires, who, unable to gain admittance to that little piece ofparadise, the Oakwood Park Hotel, beyond Conway, were compelled to mixwith the holiday crowd on the seashore of Llandudno.

  The hotel lounge was at the moment almost empty, for most of thevisitors were either on the pier or had gone out for a stroll in themoonlight. But Mrs. Morrison sat near the door chatting with CharlesEmery, a young Manchester solicitor who had only been married since hehad been demobilised six months before, and who had come to Llandudnowith his wife, as is the custom of young married folk of Lancashire.

  Once or twice the rich widow--who had hired a car for her stay in NorthWales--had invited Emery and his wife to go for runs with her to Bangor,and across the Menai Bridge to Holyhead, or to Carnarvon, Bettws-y-coed,St. Asaph, and other places. From time to time she had told them of herloneliness in her big country house in one of the wildest districts inScotland, and her intention to go abroad that winter--probably to Italy.

  "My wife has gone to the theatre with Mr. and Mrs. Challoner," Emery wassaying, as he lazily smoked his cigarette. "I had some letters towrite--business letters that came from the office this morning--so Istayed in."

  "Have you finished them?" asked the handsome widow, whose hair wasalways so remarked, and her eyes large and luminous.

  "Yes," he replied. "I suppose I shall soon have to be back in harnessagain in Deansgate. But we shall both cherish the fondest memories ofyour great kindness to us, Mrs. Morrison."

  "It's really nothing, I assure you," laughed the widow merrily. "Youhave taken compassion upon me in my horribly lonely life, and I muchappreciate it. Ah!" she sighed. "You can never imagine how lonely awoman can be who goes about the world aimlessly, as I go about. Itravel here and there, sometimes on trips abroad, by sea, or by rail,often to the south of Europe, but I make no friends. Possibly it is myown fault. I may be too exclusive. And yet I never wish to be."

  "I really don't think that!" he said gallantly. "At any rate, you'vegiven us both a real ripping time!"

  "I'm so glad you've enjoyed the little runs. But not more, I'm sure,than I have myself. I cannot live without movement. I love crowds.That's why I love cities--Manchester, London, Paris, and Rome. Where Ilive, up in Kirkcudbrightshire, it is one of the wildest and leastexplored districts of Great Britain. Between Loch Ken and Loch Doon,over the Cairnsmuir, the people are the most rural in all our island,quiet, honest folk, with no soul above their sheep and their cows. Youand your wife must come north one day to Carsphairn and stay with me."

  "I'm sure we should both be only too delighted to accept yourhospitality, Mrs. Morrison," he said. "I'm afraid we can never repay youfor your kindness to us. We are leaving next Monday."

  "Oh, you have four more days! I'm motoring to Bettws-y-coed againto-morrow. You must both come with me, and we'll lunch at the Waterloo,as we did before. There has been rain these last few days, and theSwallow Falls will no doubt be grand."

  And so it was arranged.

  Next day all three went in the car up the beautiful valley of theConway, with the wild hills on either side, through Eglwys Bach andLlanrwst, past Gwydyr Castle, and on by the Falcon Rock to that gem ofNorth Wales, Bettws-y-coed.

  To Mrs. Emery the widow was exceedingly amiable, and the day passed mostpleasantly.

  As they were motoring back through the mountains, purple in the sunset,between Capel Curig and Bangor, the widow, turning to Emery, suddenlysaid:

  "I wonder, Mr. Emery, if you would advise me upon a little point ofbusiness? I'm rather perturbed, and I would so much like yourprofessional advice. Can I see you after dinner to-night?"

  "Most certainly," was his reply. "Any advice I can give you I will doso to the best of my ability," said the sharp young lawyer, well pleasedat the prospect of a wealthy client.

  That night at dinner Mrs. Morrison, radiant and handsome, wore astriking gown of black-and-gold, with a gold band in her red hair, andher string of fine pearls. In the big white-and-gold dining-room shewas the most remarked of all the women there, but she pretended to takeno notice of the sensation caused by her entrance into the room. Yetthat gown had cost her sixty guineas in Dover Street, and, in secret,she was amused at the excitement its appearance had caused among themoneyed folk of Lancashire-by-the-Sea, who, after all, be it said, arehonest people and who are more thorough than the shallow "Society" ofpost-war London.

  After dinner, while Mrs. Emery went into the lounge and joined a womanand her daughter whom she knew, her husband went to Mrs. Morrison'ssitting-room, where he found coffee awaiting him.

  She produced a big silver box of cigarettes, and when she had served himwith coffee and liqueur she lit a cigarette and settled herself to talk.

  "The fact, Mr. Emery, is this," the woman with the wonderful haircommenced, when he had seated himself. "My late husband was ashipbuilder at Govan. Only recently I discovered that some twenty yearsago he was guilty of some sharp practice in a financial deal which,while he and his friends enriched themselves, a man named Braybourne andhis wife were both ruined. Braybourne died recently, but his widow isliving in London. Now knowledge of this affair has greatly upset me,for I had the greatest faith in my dear husband's honesty."

  "Naturally," remarked the young lawyer. "The knowledge of such a stigmaattaching to his name must grieve you."

  "Exactly. And I want somehow to make reparation. Not while I amalive--but after my death," she said. "I have been wondering whatcourse would be best to pursue. I don't know Mrs. Braybourne, andprobably she is in ignorance of my existence. Yet I should much like todo something in order to relieve my conscience. What would you advise?"

  The young solicitor was silent for a few moments. At last he replied:

  "Well, there are several courses open. You could make her an anonymousgift. But that would be difficult, for with a little inquiry she coulddiscover the source of the payment."

  "Ah! I don't want her to know anything!"

  "I quite agree with that. You could, of course, make a will in herfavour--leave her a legacy."

  Mrs. Morrison remained silent for a while.

  "Yes," she said at last, "that would be a way of easing my conscienceregarding my husband's offence."

  "Or, another way, you could insure your life in her favour. Then, atyour death, she would receive the money unexpectedly," he suggested.

  "That's rather a brilliant suggestion, Mr. Emery!" she replied eagerly."But I know nothing about insurance matters. How can I do it? Whathave I to do and where shall I go to insure?"

  "Well, Mrs. Morrison, I happen to be agent for a first-class lifeassurance company, the Universal, whose head offices are in Cornhill,London. If you so desire, I would be very happy to place a proposalbefore them," he said enthusiastically, for it meant a very substantialcommission.

  "I shall be very glad indeed, Mr. Emery, if you can carry the businessthrough for me."

  "With the utmost pleasure," was the young man's reply. "Er--what amountdo you propose?"

  "Oh! I hardly know. Some really substantial sum, I think. My husband,I have learned, got some twenty thousand pounds out of Mr. Braybourne.At least I would like to give her back half that sum."

  "Ten thousand! How extremely generous of you, Mrs. Morrison. Ofcourse, it's a large sum, and will mean a special premium, but no doubtthe company will, providing you pass the medical test, issue thepolicy."

  She thanked him for his promise to take up the matter for her. Then hewent down to the writing-room to pen a letter to the Universal AssuranceCompany, while the handsome red-haired widow passed along the loungeand, with her merry chatter, rejoined his wife.

 
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