The red widow; or, the d.., p.6
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       The Red Widow; or, The Death-Dealers of London, p.6

          

  *CHAPTER VI*

  *THE LOCKED ROOM IN HAMMERSMITH*

  "I'll go in first, and see if Mr. Boyne is at home," said MarigoldRamsay excitedly to her companion, Gerald Durrant, as they turned intoBridge Place, Hammersmith, about half-past nine one night ten dayslater.

  "Yes. If he's there I won't come in. We'll wait till another evening,"the young fellow said.

  "If he's out, I shall tell auntie that you are here, and ask whether Ican bring you in," said the girl, and leaving him idling at the corner,she hurried to the house, and went down the basement steps.

  What Marigold had told Durrant had aroused his curiosity concerning theoccupier of that creeper-covered house, and after much deliberation, hehad, after his return from Newcastle, decided to make an investigation.Certainly the exterior of the place presented nothing unusual, for thehouse was exactly the same as its neighbours, save for the dusty creeperwhich hung untrimmed around the windows. Yet the fact that the man wholived there disguised himself when he went to a locked attic wascertainly mysterious.

  After a few moments, the girl emerged, and hastening towards him, saideagerly:

  "It's all right. Mr. Boyne is not expected home before half-past ten.I'll introduce you to my aunt, and before she goes to bed--as she alwaysdoes at ten--I'll manage to unbolt the basement door. Then we'll goout, and return without her being any the wiser."

  "Excellent!" he replied, as they walked to the front door which Marigoldhad left ajar.

  In the hall Mrs. Felmore met them fussily.

  "Very pleased to know you, Mr. Durrant," declared the deaf old ladywithout, of course, having heard Gerald's greeting as he shook her hand.

  "My aunt is very deaf," the girl said. "She can read what I say by mylips, but it will be useless for you to try and converse with her. Mr.Boyne can just manage to do so."

  "Then I'll do the same," said Gerald, glancing around the front parlour,into which Mrs. Felmore had then ushered them.

  He noted the cheapness of the furniture, combined with scrupulouscleanliness, as Mrs. Felmore, turning to him, said in that loud voice inwhich the deaf usually converse:

  "I hope you'll make yourself at home, Mr. Durrant! Any friend of myniece is welcome here. Would you like a cup of tea? I know Marigoldwill have one."

  He thanked her, and she went below to prepare it, leaving the pair inMr. Boyne's room.

  Quickly Gerald rose, remarking:

  "There's nothing very curious about this, is there?" He made a criticaltour of the apartment.

  He noticed the cupboards on either side of the fireplace, and on tryingthe handle of one, found it locked.

  "He keeps his insurance papers in there," said his companion in a lowvoice.

  "What? More insurance papers! I thought he kept them in the lockedroom upstairs!" exclaimed Durrant.

  "So he does, but there are some others here," she said. "This cupboardis open. He keeps Nibby here."

  "Nibby--who's that?"

  "Here he is!" replied the girl, opening the door and taking out the cagecontaining the tame rat.

  "Is that his pet?" asked the young man, bending to examine the littleanimal, whose beady eyes regarded him with considerable apprehension.

  "Yes. Nibby always feeds off his master's plate after he has finished.A sweet little thing, isn't he?"

  Durrant agreed, but the possession of such a pet showed him that Boynewas a man of some eccentricity.

  "Would you like to see the door of the locked room?" Marigold asked."If so, I'll go downstairs and keep my aunt there while you run up tothe top floor."

  "Excellent! I've brought my electric torch with me."

  So while Marigold descended to the kitchen to talk to her aunt and helpto prepare the cup of tea, young Durrant switched on his light andrushed up the stairs, half fearing lest the front door should suddenlyopen and Boyne appear.

  Arrived at the top of the stairs, he was confronted by the door whichled into the attic, a stout one of oak, he noted. The doors of all theother rooms were of deal, painted and grained. This, however, washeavy, and of oiled oak.

  After careful examination, he came to the conclusion that the particulardoor was much more modern than the others, and the circular brasskeyhole of the Yale latch gave it the appearance of the front door of ahouse, rather than that of a room.

  Some strange secret, no doubt, lay behind that locked door.

  If it had an occupant he would, in all probability, have a light,therefore he switched off his torch and tried to discover any ray oflight shining through a crack.

  Carefully he went around the whole door, until he drew away the matbefore it, when, sure enough, _a light showed from within_!

  With bated breath he listened. He could, however, distinguish no sound,even though he placed his ear to the floor. Then, raising himself, muchgratified at his discovery, but nevertheless increasingly puzzled, herecollected that the occupant, whoever he might be, would no doubt haveheard his footsteps and was now remaining quiet, little dreaming thathis light had betrayed his presence.

  Suddenly, as he stood there straining his ears, he heard the sound oflow ticking--the ticking of a clock. Again he bent his ear to thebottom of the door, and then at once established the fact that the clockwas inside that locked room.

  He heard Marigold coming up from below, and at once slipped down again,meeting her in the hall. When within the sitting-room, he said to her ina low, tense voice:

  "There's somebody in that room! There's a light there!"

  "Your first surmise is correct then, Gerald!" she exclaimed. "Who canit possibly be?"

  "Ah! that we have to discover!" he said. "Let's be patient. I wonder,however, who can be living up there in secret. At any rate, he has bothlight and the time of day. In this weather he only wants food andwater."

  "But it's extraordinary that somebody should live here without my aunt'sknowledge."

  "It is. But there are dozens of people hidden away in London--peoplebelieved by their friends to be dead, or abroad," he said. "In a greatcity like ours it is quite easy to hide, providing that one is concealedby a trusty friend. I wonder," he added, "how many people whoseobituary notices have appeared in the papers are living in secret inupstairs rooms or down in cellars, dragging out their lives inself-imprisonment, yet buoyed by the hope that one day they may, whenchanged in appearance by years, reappear among their fellow-men andlaugh up their sleeves because nobody recognises them."

  "Really, do you honestly think that Mr. Boyne is concealing somebodyhere?" asked the girl anxiously.

  "Everything points to it--a light in the room, and a clock."

  "But why should he pay visits to him in disguise?"

  "Ah! That's quite another matter. We have yet to discover the motive.And we can only do so by watching vigilantly."

  Then he described to her how he had pulled away the mat from before thedoor, and how the light had been revealed.

  "Well," exclaimed the girl. "I'm greatly puzzled over the whole affair.May I not be frank with auntie, and tell her what we suspect?"

  "By no means," he answered. "It would be most injudicious. It wouldonly alarm her, and upset any plans we may make."

  "I wonder who can really be up there?"

  "Some very close friend of this Mr. Boyne, without a doubt. He musthave some strange motive for concealing him."

  "But if he's a friend, why does he disguise himself when he visits him?"queried the girl.

  "Yes, that's just the point. There's something very curious about thewhole affair," declared the young man. "When your aunt is in bed, hegoes up, evidently to take his friend food and drink. And yet he putson a gown which makes him look--as you have described it--like a SpanishInquisitor."

  "Only all in white. Why white?"

  "Can it be that the person upstairs is not self-imprisoned?" suggestedthe young man, as a sudden thought occurred to him. "Can it be thatwhoever is confined there is without proper mental balance? Solitaryconfinement produces madness, remember. In Italy, where solitaryconfinement for life takes the place of capital punishment for murder,the criminal always ends his days as a lunatic--driven mad by thatterrible loneliness which even a dog could not suffer."

  "That's certainly quite another point of view," she remarked. "I hadn'tthought of that!"

  "Well, it is one to bear in mind," he said. "Your aunt, a most worthylady, is devoted to Mr. Boyne and serves him well. For the present lether hold him in high esteem. In the meantime we will watch, andendeavour to solve this mystery, Marigold."

  Hardly had the words left his mouth, when the old lady entered the roomwith two cups of tea upon a brass tray.

  "There!" she said, addressing Marigold. "I know you like a cup o' teaat this hour of the evening, and I hope, Mr. Durrant, it will be to yourliking. Mr. Boyne often has a cup out of my teapot if he gets homebefore I go to bed."

  "It's awfully good of you, auntie," the girl declared. "I know Mr.Durrant highly appreciates it."

  "That's all right," laughed the old lady. "I'll soon be going to bed.It's near ten o'clock now."

  Gerald glanced at his wrist-watch and saw that it was just ten.

  Then, when Mrs. Felmore had gone, he said to the girl:

  "Hadn't we better be going? Boyne will be back soon."

  "Right," she said, drinking her tea daintily. "I'll go down and unfastenthe basement door. Auntie has no doubt bolted it. Then, when she's goneto bed, we can get in again."

  And a few moments later she left him. Five minutes later she reappeared,followed by Mrs. Felmore.

  "Auntie is going to bed," she said. "We must be off, Gerald."

  The young man rose, smiled pleasantly, and shook the deaf woman's handin farewell. Then, a few moments later, the young pair descended thefront steps and left the house.

  About ten minutes later, however, they returned to it, slippingunobserved down the area steps. Marigold turned the handle of the door,and in the darkness they both entered the kitchen, where they waitedeagerly, without lighting the gas, and conversing only in whispers.Mrs. Felmore had gone upstairs, and stone-deaf that she was, would hearno noise below.

  She had left the gas turned low in the hall in readiness for hermaster's return, retiring fully satisfied with the appearance andmanners of the young man to whom her niece had that night introducedher.

  The pair, waiting below in the darkness, remained eagerly on the alert.

  It was a quarter past ten, and Bernard Boyne might return at any time.But each minute which passed seemed an hour, so anxious and puzzled werethey, and at every noise they held their breath and waited.

  At last footsteps sounded outside--somebody ascending the stone stepsabove--and next second there was a click as a key was put into the latchof the front door.

  "Here he is--at last!" the girl whispered. "Now we'll watch!"

  They watched together--and by doing so learned some very strange facts.

 
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