The red widow; or, the d.., p.25
The Red Widow; or, The Death-Dealers of London, p.25
The commotion caused in Bridge Place by the fire at Mr. Boyne's was notof long duration. Ere the fire brigade arrived, however, so swift wasthe fire that the two top floors were gutted, thus destroying the secretof that locked chamber.
A woman who lived a few doors off, and who knew Mrs. Felmore, gave thedeaf old woman and her niece shelter, and while the police kept back thecrowd at both ends of the street the four engines which had arrived weresoon pumping water upon the roaring flames. The house was an old onewith much woodwork, therefore it burned like tinder, and Marigold hadcertainly only escaped with her life. The superintendent in charge ofthe firemen had already ascertained that no person remained within, andthe men in their shining helmets, their figures illuminated by the glarefrom the flames, were clambering across the neighbouring roofs withtheir hose-pipes.
Soon the flames were got under by the powerful rush of water, but notbefore the roof had fallen in, and only the ground floor remainedintact, while the houses on either side were badly damaged. Every nowand then, when a beam fell, or a portion of wall collapsed, showers ofsparks shot upward, and there was a burst of flames through the smoke.
A fire in any crowded district of London at whatever hour alwaysattracts a large number of onlookers. That night was no exception, fora big crowd had assembled at either end of the street, and in the centreof the crowd towards Hammersmith Bridge, wedged between several women ofthe lower class, stood a shabbily-dressed man in a golf cap watchingintently the progress of the fire.
He watched it with satisfaction, and saw the flames as they descendedand burst through the windows of the second floor. When the roof fellin he smiled, though none noticed it.
The man saw that all evidence of his diabolical work had been destroyed,for he was none other than Bernard Boyne.
What had happened to Marigold and her aunt? He asked the woman standingnext to him if any people were in the house.
"Yes. They say there's two women and a man there," was the reply. "Theman got out, but the two women 'ave been burnt to death, poor dears!Ain't it terrible? They were asleep when the fire broke out. Thefiremen 'aven't got the bodies out yet."
"Terrible!" declared the man in the golf cap; and then he elbowed hisway out of the crowd filled with satisfaction.
As he did so a youth shouted:
"Lucky for 'em--eh? Both the women got out just in time."
"Is that so?" asked Boyne.
"Yes," said the youth. "One of the firemen 'as just told me."
"There was a girl there, wasn't there?" Boyne queried.
"Yes; she was got out, with an old woman!"
"Where are they?"
"They say they're in a house just along there," was the reply.
Boyne held his breath and went on. At first he had believed that hisdastardly plot had been successful, and that Marigold had fallen avictim to his clever machinations. At least, the two upper floors hadbeen destroyed and certain evidence wiped out. The clock, thepocket-lighter, and the child's rubber airball filled with petrol, whichhad been in the box he had so silently introduced into the house whileMarigold was at the police-station, had done their work just as he hadintended. But he was filled with disappointment and chagrin when, afterseveral other inquiries of firemen and others, he became convinced thatold Mrs. Felmore and her niece had escaped.
At last, after watching until the excitement of the scene had died downand the crowd was dispersing, he learnt from one of the firemen--hedared not be seen by a police constable, for most of them knew him bysight--the house in which the two half-suffocated women had takenshelter.
Then he turned and trudged all the way back to Pont Street, for, dressedas he was, he did not wish to get there until the servants had retired.
He had made another great coup, it was true, but the peril of Marigoldstill existed. That was the one thought that obsessed him as he strodeup the long Kensington Road, past the Albert Hall, and on towards HydePark Corner.
The night of Augusta's death had been fraught with sufficient perils inall conscience. He recollected the unexpected appearance of Celine andher companion, of how he had defied them, and how, later that night, acaller had come to Pont Street--a caller who could not be refusedadmission--the man who had for so long been in hiding in that upstairsroom which had now been totally wiped out by the flames. "I shall haveto reappear at home to-morrow full of surprise," he muttered to himself,as at last he let himself into the house in Pont Street, the door ofwhich Lilla had left purposely unbolted.
Next day about noon, carrying a suit-case and dressed as he usually waswhen going about his duties in Hammersmith, he arrived in Bridge Placeutterly amazed at finding his house wrecked and ruined. A constable wason duty--a man who knew him.
"Well, sir," exclaimed the man in uniform, "this is pretty bad, ain'tit? The fire broke out late last night, but it's fortunate the twowomen got out in time."
"What?" gasped Boyne, apparently staggered at the sight. "What'shappened? I've been away in Liverpool, and have only just got back!"
"Well, that deaf old woman will be glad you're back, sir. She's beenround to the police-station telling 'em that you were away."
"Where is she?"
"In the house over there," and he pointed to it.
"You said there was another woman in the house. Who was she?"
"A girl. The old woman's niece, I've heard. She's all right, and wentaway early this morning."
"Oh, yes, I know her. Came to keep the old woman company while I wasaway, I expect," he said. "But how fortunate they were saved! How didit happen? Does anyone know?"
"The superintendent of the brigade was here about two hours ago, andthey examined the ruins. They think that the fire must have broken outin the top room upstairs. I went over it with them. We found a lot offused glass, which rather puzzled them."
"Oh, yes. A lot of bottles I kept upstairs. I suppose they melted inthe heat," Boyne replied. "Did they find anything else?"
"No, nothing of any importance."
"Then they don't know how it broke out?"
"No; except that there must have been something up there veryinflammable, they say, for the fire spread so quickly."
"Perhaps it was a bottle of benzine I had up there for cleaning myclothes," said Boyne. "But, any case, it's rough luck on me--for I'mnot insured."
"Sorry to hear that, sir," replied the constable. "They said, you beingan insurance agent, you would be certain to be covered against loss."
"No. It's the old story over again," Boyne said, with a grin, "'theshoemaker's child is the worst shod.' I was a fool not to insureagainst fire--an infernal fool! But it can't be helped. It's ruinedme!" and he turned away and crossed the road to the house which theconstable had indicated as the one where old Mrs. Felmore had soughtshelter.
For half an hour Boyne sat listening while the old woman shouted to himexcitedly her description of the fire. He adopted that mealy-mouthedattitude which he could assume at will--that attitude he adopted socleverly when he went to church so regularly--and condoled with her.
"Of course, Mrs. Felmore, all this horrible catastrophe shall not makeany difference to you. I hear you had Miss Marigold to keep youcompany. Quite right! But I'm so very sorry about it all. The poor girlmust have been very frightened. Where is she?"
"She went back to Wimbledon Park about an hour ago, sir. Shetelegraphed to the bank excusing herself for to-day, as she only hadclothes that were lent her."
"Ah! I am so sorry about that. But have you any idea how it allhappened?" Boyne asked the old woman.
"No, sir, I haven't. I'm always so careful about fire," she answered."I was burnt when I was a child, and therefore I always look at thekitchen grate and rake the cinders out before I goes to bed."
"But it seems to have been upstairs where the fire originated."
"Yes, sir," replied the old woman. "I expect it was the kitchen flue.I asked old Mr. Morgan, the sweep, to do it three weeks ago, but he wasvery busy, and he didn't come. I've cleaned out the range allright--but that's what I think. I'm sorry, sir, but it wasn't my fault,really it wasn't."
"Of course not, Mrs. Felmore. Morgan should have come when you orderedhim," Boyne said.
Afterwards he succeeded in entering the gaunt blackened wreck of hishome. With satisfaction he saw the frameless windows of the two upperfloors, but inside a spectacle of utter ruin met his gaze. The waterhad come through the ceiling of his sitting-room, half of which wasdown, the stairs consumed, and all the remaining furniture ruined beyondrepair.
From the cupboard, however, he took his pet "Nibby," who was stillalive, and probably wondering at all the commotion.
"Poor little fellow!" he exclaimed, stroking the rat's pointed pinknose, and afterwards placing him in his pocket, as he did sometimes. "Ishall give you to Mrs. Felmore."
And after a final look round at the scene of the wreckage, he returnedto where his deaf old housekeeper was staying, and presented her withthe tame rat.
Late that same afternoon Boyne hurried along Theobald's Road, past therailings of Gray's Inn, and crossing the busy road with its processionof tramcars, turned the corner into Harpur Street, a short, dingythoroughfare of smoke-grimed, old-fashioned houses, once the residencesof well-to-do people, but now mostly let out in tenements.
Before one of the houses on the left-hand side he halted, and pulled thebell. The door was opened by a young girl wearing a dirty apron andwhose hair was in curlers.
"Good-afternoon, Mr. Bennett. Yes, 'e's upstairs," she exclaimed.
So up the uncarpeted stairs Boyne went to the top of the house.
"It's only me," he said reassuringly as he turned the handle of a doorand unceremoniously entered a small, barely-furnished, ill-kept room.
A cheap oil lamp, smoking badly, was burning on the table, while nearit, back in the shadow, sat the figure of a man huddled up in a raggedold armchair.
"You!" he grunted. "You've been a long time!
"I couldn't get here before, Lionel. It was too dangerous. I had tosee that all was clear before I to enter this street. There's always adetective or two about here, and it wouldn't do for you to be seenoutside."
"No," grunted the man, who, rising slowly to his feet came within thefeeble zone of light which revealed a thin, bony face, with high cheekbones, an abnormal forehead, and a pair of deep-set dark eyes. The fadedgrey suit he wore was several sizes too big for him, yet his arms seemedof unusual length, and his hands were narrow and long, with talon-likefingers.
His countenance was truly a strange one, being triangular, with verynarrow chin and very broad brow--the face of a man who was either agenius or an idiot.
"I waited all night for you!" he said in plaintive tones. "And younever came."
"Well, I'm not going to risk anything--even for you!" replied Boyneroughly. "I've got quite enough of my own troubles just now."
"Oh! What's happened?"
"Lots. It's a good job I got you away from Hammersmith, my friend. Theplace has burned up!"
"Burned up?" echoed the strange-looking man. "Oh! Then you've had thebeautiful fire you used to talk about, eh? And has it all gone?"
"The lot. And a darned good job for you!"
"And that beautiful microscope?" the man asked regretfully. "Has thatgone, too?"
"Yes. The whole bag of tricks has been consumed. That's why I didn'tcome last night," Boyne said.
"Oh! the beautiful mike!" exclaimed the abnormal creature, as though tohimself. "And it cost such a lot--oh, such a lot!"
"Don't trouble about the microscope, you fool!" cried Boyne roughly."Just try and pull yourself together and save your own skin. Where arethose tubes? I want them."
The lean man in the over-large suit ambled across the room, his headbent forward, for he was very round-shouldered, and going to an oldleather bag in the corner, slowly unlocked it and drew out a thickcartridge envelope which contained something hard.
Boyne took it from him quickly, and tearing it open, took out twodark-blue tubes of glass, the corks of which were sealed with wax.
"Are they all right?" he asked harshly. "Can you guarantee them? Nowdon't tell me a lie," he added threateningly, "or it will be the worsefor you. I had a good mind to give you over to the police when you cameto Pont Street the other night. You deserved it--venturing out likethat."
"I got to know where you were, and I had to come and see you," whinedthe ugly creature as he ambled back to his chair.
"Don't do it again! Remain in hiding. Keep close here. You are incomfortable quarters. Old Mrs. Sampson below is always silent asregards her lodgers. Lots of men who have had this room have hiddenfrom the police till they found a way out of it. Take my advice, and dothe same. But don't attempt to come round to Pont Street--for we don'twant you there, _understand that_?"
And he put the little glass tubes, which contained fatal bacteria, backinto their envelope and placed them carefully in his pocket.
"But money! I must have money!" cried the other, a young-old man whoseage it was impossible to determine though his hair was growing grey.
"Of course you must," laughed Boyne. "Here's fifty pounds to go onwith. And keep a still tongue or it will be the worse for you.Recollect if you are unfortunate enough to be arrested, it will only bebecause of your own idiotic movements. Keep quiet here."
"Misfortune may befall any of us!" said the other in that peculiarwhining voice which showed that his mental balance was not normal.
"True. But if you do happen to fall into the hands of the police,remember--breathe not a word. Trust to me to help you out of the scrape.Trust Mrs. Sampson downstairs--and trust me."
"Yes. But, oh, that beautiful mike! Burnt up. That beautiful mike!"
"Don't bother about that. I'll buy you another, and all the apparatusif you'll only keep a still tongue and remain in the house. I've toldMrs. Sampson not to let you out."
"Oh! I won't go out. I promise you I won't," he said with an idioticstare. "I only went to Pont Street because I wanted to know if you wereall right."
"And incidentally you wanted money!" laughed the other. "Well, you hadit--you have it again now. Remain quiet and content. I'm busy. I'vegot lots of things to look after. I've probably got to go away, butI'll see you have money to go on with all right."
"Very well," said the strange man. "This place is better thanHammersmith, living in a locked room for weeks and months, nobody tosee, and only breathing the fresh air on the roof when everybody hadgone to bed."
"But you had your work--your scientific work in bacteriology! You can'tlive without your work!"
"Ah, yes. I had my work. But, oh! it was so lonely--so very lonely."
"You're not lonely here," said Boyne cheerfully. "So don't bother. Takeyour ease, and make the best of it. You're in a house which shelterspeople like yourself. Here everyone keeps a still tongue--and nobodyknows about little Maggie."
The curious man with the triangular face blinked across at Boyne--andremained silent for several moments.
"Little Maggie!" he gasped at last. "Little Maggie! Ah! I remember.I----"
Again he paused. Then glaring into Boyne's face with a strange wildexpression, he said:
"You! Why--why you're--you're really Willie Wisden!"
"Of course I am," laughed Boyne. "But keep cool, Lionel, old chap, oryou'll have one of those nasty attacks of yours coming on again. Ta-ta!I'll come back very soon," he said, and turning he left the room anddescended the stairs.
"Perhaps I'll come back," he muttered to himself. "But I do not thinkso! The idiot has served me well, and I've got the tubes. That is allI want--at present!"
And a moment later he was walking in the darkness through Harpur Street.
The Red Widow; or, The Death-Dealers of London by William Le Queux / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes