The red widow; or, the d.., p.8
The Red Widow; or, The Death-Dealers of London, p.8
*ON LOCH LOMOND*
A bright brilliant day on glorious Loch Lomond, which, with its woodedislands, is one of the most picturesque of all the Scottish lakes.
The grey little steamer, which that morning had left Balloch Pier at thesouthern end of the loch, was slowly threading its way through the greenislets in the afternoon sunshine. Crowded as it always is in fineweather with visitors from the south, all full of admiration as at everyturn there came into view fresh aspects of the woods and mountainsaround Ben Lomond, standing high and majestic, Ben Vane, Ben Vorlick,the twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and the tent-shaped Ben More.
The silent grandeur of the loch, where in the deep waters, smooth asglass, the heron fishes undisturbed, is always impressive. Even on thatunusually clear autumn day--for mists and rains are more often than notdrifting up and down that twenty-five miles or so of picturesque water,which is sometimes as wide as five miles--those who had come up fromEdinburgh or Glasgow to make the trip, stood open-mouthed at theever-changing scene as the steamer wended its way up the loch afterleaving the remote little village of Luss.
Among those on board, seated in a deck-chair and enjoying the beautifulafternoon, was a well-dressed woman of middle-age, with auburn hair, andrather sad-faced, but very well preserved. Once or twice her maid, ashort, stout little Scotchwoman, whose speech was that of a Glaswegian,came to wait upon her, afterwards retiring to another part of the boat.
The lady's eyes were fixed upon the gorgeous panorama. Beside her chairwas a well-worn dressing-bag in dark-green cover, which showed that shewas not a mere day traveller, but had come to Loch Lomond to stay at oneof the unpretentious lakeside hotels, of which there are several atTarbet and at Inversnaid. Though she was greatly enjoying the scenery,it was not in the least fresh to her. Indeed, Mrs. Morrison, ofCarsphairn, was an annual visitor to Loch Lomond, staying a fortnighteach year at the little hotel at Ardlui, a spot which her late husbandhad loved so well.
Though an extremely wealthy man, the summer attractions of Harrogate,Dinard, Aix, or Ostend, had never appealed to him. Bluff and hearty, heloved Loch Lomond in the days of his prosperity just as when, in hisyouth, he used to save his coppers to enable him to have a one-day tripfrom Glasgow each summer--red-letter days in his otherwise grey workadaylife.
It had, indeed, been in his mind to build a fine summer residence on theshore of the loch at Ardlui, and he had actually bought the site--onethat gave a magnificent view of Ben Lomond and a wide-reaching expanseof the lake--when a sudden illness cut him off, and his wife was left tomourn his loss.
Augusta Morrison was thinking of the last occasion when she and herdevoted husband had come for the annual fortnight at Ardlui, and of howdaily they walked to the site on the mountain-side where their new homewas to be.
That was four years ago. Yet each year she never failed to pay herpilgrimage to the spot which they both so loved.
A young couple, evidently Londoners, seated beside her, had been readingaloud from a guide book the legend of the rocky Craig Royston, wherethere is a cave known locally as "Rob Roy's Prison," and then, full ofadmiration, had turned to the splendid view afforded of the mountainsaround Arrochar.
Just then the steamer slackened, and after some shouting from thecaptain, was moored to the pier at Inversnaid, the little loch-sidevillage with its wooded mountains beyond. There most of the passengersleft the boat to cross by coach or motor that ridge which lies betweenLoch Lomond and Loch Katrine, Inversnaid being one of the points ofdeparture from Loch Lomond to the Trossachs. Therefore, when the boatwent on to the head of the loch at Ardlui, there remained but fewpassengers.
At last the steamer drew up at the quaint little landing-stage, thepostal official brought out the last bag of mail for delivery, and, Mrs.Morrison's maid collecting up all their belongings, they both waiteduntil the paddles had ceased to revolve.
Scarcely had the widow risen from her chair, when a big, burly Scotpresented himself, and, touching his cap, respectfully bade the ladywelcome.
"Ah! so you're here still, McIntyre!" remarked the widow pleasantly.
"Yes, Mistress Morrison, David McIntyre never leaves Ardlui," laughedthe man, who acted as porter, boots, and general factotum to theTillychewan Arms Hotel.
Mistress and maid walked ashore, and were very soon at the little hotelfacing the loch, a very cosy, unpretentious place, where one could getexcellent food, and go mountaineering and fishing to one's heart'scontent.
On the threshold Mrs. Morrison was greeted enthusiastically by theproprietor's wife, a stout, homely woman, and very soon the widow fromKirkcudbrightshire and her maid were installed in the rooms she annuallyoccupied, both of which gave magnificent views of water and mountains.
At Ardlui the daily steamer waits for an hour and a half, and thenreturns to Balloch, where the express for Glasgow is waiting.Therefore, when the siren sounded and the boat left on its returnjourney, the little place relapsed into its lethargy of rural solitudeand remoteness from the stress of the southern world.
The hotel, half covered with creeper, stood in its well-kept garden,which ran down to the lake. It was not quite full of visitors. Theguests, however, were all of the better class, mostly Glasgow merchantsand their wives, with a couple of families from London, and the usualyouthful, well-dressed idler which one finds in every hotel the worldover.
At dinner, as Mrs. Morrison sat alone in a corner by the windowoverlooking the loch, now crimson in the sunset, she glanced around, butnone of her fellow-visitors appeared to be very interesting. The onlyperson who attracted her was one woman who, seated alone, was apparentlytaking no interest in anyone, for she had propped up before her the_Glasgow Herald_, which had just arrived by the steamer, and wasabsorbed in it.
Augusta Morrison raised her eyes again, and saw that the woman wasexceedingly well, though very quietly, dressed, while there was abouther a distinct air of refinement. She also noticed that she possessedvery remarkable hair.
Suddenly the eyes of the two women met, and the widow, a little confusedfor she had been staring hard, turned to look out of the window.
An hour later, when the well-dressed woman had gone out for anafter-dinner stroll in the direction of the landing-stage, Mrs. Morrisoninquired her name of the proprietor's wife.
"Oh!" replied the other. "She's a very nice lady from London. She hasnever been up here before. She's a Mrs. Pollen."
Then, referring to the visitors' book, she added: "She lives in UpperBrook Street, London. She came here about four days ago."
"Is she making a long stay?"
"She took her rooms for a fortnight," was the woman's reply. "She seemsquite nice," she added.
Mrs. Morrison, of Carsphairn, agreed, and then, getting a wrap, went outinto the garden where several of the other visitors were sitting on theverandah, as the dull red afterglow deepened into twilight.
With one of the women she got into conversation, and, taking the emptychair next to her, remained there chatting for nearly an hour. Then,just as darkness was falling, Mrs. Pollen, in a short skirt and carryinga little ash walking-stick, re-entered the garden and sank into a seatin the corner to rest.
Next morning after breakfast--the usual Scotch breakfast with coldgrouse and scones--Mrs. Morrison again strolled out into the sunlitgarden after Mrs. Pollen, and broke the ice.
At first Mrs. Pollen preserved a somewhat dignified attitude. She spokein her best Mayfair manner, and it was apparent that she consideredherself socially superior to the widow, who, by her speech, was sopalpably Scotch.
"No," said Ena, "I have never been in Scotland before. I find it mostdelightful up here, but rather dull when one is alone, as I am."
"I, too, am alone, except for my maid," replied the widow. "But I lovethis place. It is so quiet and out of the world. Besides, the sceneryis as grand as any in Scotland. I'm Scottish, and I've travelled thewhole country through with my husband. He was always enchanted withArdlui. Indeed," she added, "we bought a site for a home out here at theback--where one has a lovely view--but unfortunately he died before hegave the order to build the place."
"How very unfortunate," said Ena Pollen, with quick sympathy, and inpretence that she knew nothing whatever of her fellow-guest's identity,or of her past, whereas she knew every fact of importance concerningher. "I live in London, and though I travel a good deal, mostly on theContinent or in Egypt, I must say that I think Loch Lomond reallybeautiful. I took a long ramble by the lochside yesterday afternoon,and found it most enjoyable."
"Ah!" said Mrs. Morrison. "You must take the trip over toStronachlachar and up Katrine. It is quite pretty, but not so grand asthis. Besides, there are always too many trippers in the Trossachs.But while you are here you must really go across and see Ellen's Isle."
And so the pair, seated in the garden with the sunlit waters at theirfeet, gossiped on, and quickly became good friends.
That same evening, indeed, Mrs. Morrison invited the lady from London upto her sitting-room to take coffee after dinner, and there they satgossiping and smoking cigarettes until it was time to retire.
When Ena Pollen gained her room she locked the door, and, flingingherself into a small easy chair, exclaimed beneath her breath:
"Thank Heaven! That's over! The first few hours when one cultivates afriendship are always full of pitfalls. A word in the wrong place, andthe person one seeks to know may instantly conceive a strong dislike.In this case, however, the woman has approached me. It was a good job Igot up here first."
Ena Pollen was much fatigued by the recent rapid journeys to and fro toScotland, over to Paris and back, and then north again to Loch Lomond.She was, however, a cosmopolitan, and had travelled very extensivelyever since she had been left a widow ten years earlier. Her husband hadbeen a solicitor, whose practice was in Bedford Row, but after his deathshe had embarked upon an adventurous career which had culminated in herassociation with Bernard Boyne and his wife.
That association had brought her considerable wealth--sufficient,indeed, to allow her, through payments from Boyne and his wife, to livein an expensive flat and indulge in jewellery, furs, smart frocks, andall that appealed to her natural vanity.
That evening, however, she felt worn out. The strain of ingratiatingherself with Mrs. Morrison of Carsphairn, whom she found to be anexceedingly shrewd woman, had been considerable, and this, combined withthe fact that she had taken a long walk that afternoon, had utterlyfagged her.
From a tiny silver tube with a cap upon it, which she took from herdressing-case, she extracted a single little white tabloid, andswallowed it.
"I wonder--I wonder if we shall really be successful?" she murmured toherself. "There must be no slip this time--no recurrence of thatunfortunate contretemps in the Martin affair. Phew! That was a narrowshave. I was in Melun only just in time. A few days later, and allchance of dispelling suspicion would have gone!"
She reflected how on more than one occasion they had sailed very nearthe wind--far too near to be pleasant--and how they had narrowly escapeda closer inquiry. Lilla, however, was always fearless, even when herhusband expressed doubts. It was she, indeed, who was the moving spiritof the whole affair, for she went about in her circle of society withher eyes and ears ever open until she saw an opportunity to put intomotion that deadly machinery which, worked with such subtle cunning,never failed to increase their bank balance.
She stood at her window as the full moon rose over the loch,transforming the scene into a veritable fairyland, and here she remainedin deep reflection. She was contemplating the course she should pursuewhen she met Mrs. Morrison on the morrow. Already they had becomefriends, the widow from Kirkcudbrightshire being, of course, in entireignorance that the pleasant woman from London had come to Ardlui for thesole purpose of making her acquaintance. Ena Pollen was possessed of acunning that few women possess unless they are adventuresses. She sawthat she must allow this Mrs. Morrison to seek her society. Already sherealised that the Scotch widow had been greatly attracted by herconversation; hence she decided that on the morrow she must not be tooeager to meet and chat with her.
She was in no mood for sleep, therefore she pulled down the blind, andseating herself at a little table in the room, penned a letter which sheaddressed to "B. Braybourne, Esquire, 93, Pont Street, London," and inthe course of which she wrote:
"_Things are going even better than I expected. Mrs. M., who made thefirst advance, is extremely affable to me. I hope that within a week orten days I can be back in London. Mrs. M., on leaving here, is going toBrighton to visit a niece, so I may see something of her. Do not writehere, as I may be leaving any day. I have had a letter from Emery. Itwas sent to Upper Brook Street, and fortunately enclosed to me in anenvelope. It would have been unfortunate if it had come here addressedto Mrs. M.! Would it not? But do not be alarmed! I have giveninstructions that no letters are to be forwarded in future._"
Next day after breakfast she went out to the post-box and there droppedin the letter, so that it would leave by the afternoon steamer for thesouth. And after she took a long walk alone along the loch-side, underBen Voirlich, as far as the little village of Inveruglas, and thence upthe Inveruglas water, a pretty stream which comes rushing down throughthe woods from Loch Sloy. And there in the cool shade she at last satdown upon a moss-grown boulder and took out a book and read.
She was playing a waiting game, and one that succeeded, for as she rosefrom her table after lunch, Mrs. Morrison came up to her, saying:
"Why, wherever have you been, Mrs. Pollen? I've been seeking everywherefor you."
"Have you?" she asked quite innocently. "I've been for a walk to theInveruglas water."
"Oh! Isn't it delightful there in the woods?" said the widow. "I'vebeen there often. We used to go and picnic there sometimes--right on upLoch Sloy. It is very grand and lonely up there, and the view in alldirections is superb."
"I've only been in the woods at the bottom of the mountain," the RedWidow replied.
"Well, I was going to ask you whether, if you haven't anything better todo, you would drive with me up Glen Falloch to Crianlarich," said Mrs.Morrison.
"I shall be most delighted," replied Ena. "I'm sure it is awfully goodof you."
"Well, as we are both alone, it will be a pleasure for me to have yourcompany," Mrs. Morrison assured her.
Therefore at three o'clock they left in a carriage which took them awayinto the picturesque glen for six miles or so, past the little villageof Inverarnan, until they reached that pleasant little spot Crianlarich,sheltering beneath the high Ben More at the head of the narrow GlenDochart, with Loch Fay beyond.
They wandered about the heather gossiping on all sorts of subjects, theRed Widow telling her a number of purely fictitious stories aboutherself and her travels, while Mrs. Morrison told her much about thehappiness of her own married life.
"I have never cared to enter society because, while my husband lived, itnever attracted me," she said, as they sat together upon a rock amongthe heather whence they had a magnificent view up Glen Dochart. "Myhusband hated it. He was a self-made man. A baronetcy was offered him,but he refused it. He did not agree with the system whereby donationsto party funds makes an honest man a pinchbeck gentleman."
"True!" she declared. "I admire Mr. Morrison for his outspokenness."
"Well, that is why I never entered society," Mrs. Morrison said, with asigh.
"But why don't you see a little more of life?" Ena suggested. "Youappear, from what you say, to be buried alive at Carsphairn!"
"I see but very few people, but I take a great interest in the estate,and I have a few shooting parties--mostly friends of my late husband."
"Why not come to London for a month or so? Go to the theatres andrestaurants, and have an enjoyable time? I do, and I find that I'mamused and meet many interesting people. You are going to Brighton.Why not remain in London for a bit after your visit there?" the RedWidow suggested. "I know a good many people, and I think you would havea nice time. Besides, you would do shopping also. Paris and London arethe only places where one can buy anything decent to wear nowadays."
"You are really very good, Mrs. Pollen, to offer to entertain me inLondon," she declared. "Of course, I have other engagements, but----"
"Oh, but those can be broken. If you are going to Brighton, make a stayin London on your return. I live in Upper Brook Street. Do you knowit?"
"Oh yes. I once, long ago, had a friend who lived there. I know itquite well."
"I have only a small flat, otherwise I would offer you hospitality."
"Oh--no," said the widow. "I can easily stay at the Carlton, the Ritz,or somewhere."
"Then think it over," said the pleasant woman from London.
"Yes, I will," replied the other. "We have many things in common, Ibelieve, and I am sure that we shall be good friends."
"I'm delighted to hear that your thoughts coincide with my own. I makevery few new acquaintances; I have so many old friends."
"And I make none. Not that I'm at all exclusive, I hope. But themajority of women I meet I find too shallow and frivolous, and theydon't attract me."
"Then I consider myself highly honoured!" laughed Ena, as the pair roseto walk back to the Crianlarich Hotel to tea.
And while Mrs. Morrison of Carsphairn, ignorant of what was in progress,believed that she really had found a delightful friend--a woman afterher own heart--the Red Widow smiled within herself, highly gratified ather success.
The Red Widow; or, The Death-Dealers of London by William Le Queux / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes