The Richest Widow - Hulbert Footner - ebook

The Richest Widow ebook

Hulbert Footner



After a minimal education in Canada, Footner emigrated to New York in 1898 and worked at a variety of jobs, including an unsuccessful stint as an actor. He turned to journalism and worked for a time as a freelancer, contributing articles to periodicals such as Field and Stream. His first works were primarily travelogues of various river trips in Canada and the U.S., although he did produce some adventure novels. He is also credited with introducing the first American female investigator in Madame Storey. So we are introduced to the fascinating Madame Rosika Storey, fearless and intelligent, who plays cat-and-mouse with killers, goes undercover to break up criminal gangs, and unravels deadly mysteries.

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After all the excitement and distress of the “Cold Trail” case, which turned out so badly for us, my employer, Madame Storey, decided to give herself a two months’ vacation in Paris, and asked me to accompany her. At this time she had a notion of writing her memoirs, and expected to use me as an amanuensis. As it turned out, we were immediately caught in a fresh whirl of events in Paris, and no writing was done. However, that is another story.

She engaged accommodations on the Baratoria, her favourite ship. According to her custom we were booked under assumed names, but on this occasion it did her no good, for during the uproar of a mid-afternoon sailing a dozen people recognized her, and it soon spread all over the ship that the famous Mme. Storey was aboard.

Amongst the acquaintances she ran into was Mrs. Hibbert Lacy, the widow of the tin-plate magnate, a lady who had cut a wide swathe in the town since the death of her domineering husband. Mrs. Lacy was a slender little woman who had preserved her figure better than her face. All that the most expensive artists in beauty could perform on her had been performed, but it only gave a sort of pickled effect.

However, she appeared happily unconscious of that, and was posing and coquetting all over the boat deck for the news photographers. She was an amusing sort of woman to meet socially; the consciousness of great wealth at least gave her the courage to be herself; but you never know what you may find when you scratch the social veneer.

Amongst her crowd of hangers-on, we were introduced to Miss Sigismonda Van Vliet, her secretary; Walter Lacy and Harold Lacy, her nephews, cousins to each other, and Ronald Mackworth, a young English actor who had made quite a hit in New York the preceding season in a play called, “Over the Fence Is Out.” He could not act, but he had a smile revealing white teeth in a tanned face that no woman could resist. He was a good thirty years younger than Mrs. Lacy.

The richest widow had fairly screamed with delight at the sight of Mme. Storey. Such was her style. “We must see a lot of each other, Rosika!”

My employer and I shared the joke with straight faces.

“We must indeed!” she said to Mrs. Lacy. “I had expected to bury myself in work on the way over, but I am always yours to command, Fanny.”

“Not command, darling! It’s the other way ‘round. I only have money, but you have brains!”

“I’m glad somebody still thinks so,” said Mme. Storey, thinking of our last case with a wry face.

“You must tell me the whole story, darling. It will be more exciting than a novel.”

Mme. Storey, who never talks about her cases, merely smiled.

Mrs. Lacy asked us to dine with her party in their suite. She had something particular to tell Mme. Storey, she said. It is difficult to find an excuse on shipboard, and my employer accepted for us. As she said after we had left them:

“Anyhow it will be more amusing than eating in our cabin alone. If we went down to the saloon we’d be stared out of face.”

Mme. Storey and I had communicating rooms forward on B deck. Nowhere on earth can one obtain such a sense of luxury as on a great liner at sea. As we sailed down the bay, and quiet settled over the ship, those charming little rooms filled with flowers, and the soft sea airs blowing through the open ports made me purr with, a sense of well-being. I looked forward to six idle days of delight. Well, it didn’t turn out just that way.

We put on our best for the dinner party. Mme. Storey, clad in one of the unadorned velvet gowns hanging from points over her shoulders that she affects, looked regal. Mrs. Lacy had the imperial suite on B deck amidships. You entered a beautiful sitting-room where the table was set, and passed out on a private veranda with sliding windows looking out over the sea. This place, filled with palms and flowering plants, was perfectly enchanting.

The cocktails were put in busy circulation, and tongues unloosed.

Nobody paid any particular attention to me, for which I was glad, as it left me free to use my eyes and ears on the others.

Amidst the happy smiles and light-hearted chatter I soon perceived a suggestion of strain-in fact of several strains. The impulsive Mrs. Lacy made no secret of the fact that she was completely infatuated with the young actor, and her two nephews, who were presumably her heirs, were terrified that something serious might come of it.

On the other hand, Miss Van Vliet, the social secretary, had fallen for Ronny Mackworth herself, and it was bitter to her to lose him to the old woman with money.

When we came to the round table, Mrs. Lacy, keeping Mme. Storey on one side of her, and Ronny on the other, let the rest of us seat ourselves as we would. Mackworth was on one side of me, one of the cousins on the other; then Miss Van Vliet (whom they called. Sigi) next to her, then the other cousin, and so around to Mme. Storey. It was perfectly evident that Mrs. Lacy and Ronny were holding hands under the table. Everybody was aware of it.

Ronny Mackworth was handsome enough to have made any woman’s heart ache; moreover, he appeared to be intelligent, good-humored and witty–not too conceited. His feelings were harder to explain. His manner towards her was perfect; simple, affectionate and humorous. He teased her and she adored him for it.

I could only suppose that the glamour of a hundred millions had really persuaded him that he was in love with her.

Such things do happen. It was well known that the money had been left to her outright.

I remember him saying as he held his glass of champagne up to the light and looked through it: “This is an improvement on my last voyage! I crossed to America third-class in an old Dutch hooker when I was looking for a job.”

“Well, you’ve earned this, Ronny,” said Mrs. Lacy fondly. “You need never experience such hardship again!”

Mme. Storey asked pleasantly, in order to make conversation:

“What are your plans for next season, Ronny?” Everybody called him Ronny at sight. That was the way he had with you.

Mrs. Lacy spoke up for him. “Oh, he isn’t going to act any more. I don’t think it’s a good business for a man, do you?”

“It depends upon how talented an actor he is,” said Mme. Storey smiling.

“Ronny has shown what he can do,” said Mrs. Lacy.

“And now he’s ready to retire,” put in Sigi.

Mrs. Lacy ignored it. “The stage is beset with too many temptations,” she said.

“Ronny will always look after number one,” said Sigi with her diamond hard smile.

Mrs. Lacy’s eyes snapped, and Mme. Storey intervened again.

“Well, if acting is out, what does he plan to do?”

“He should take plenty of time to look around first,” said Mrs. Lacy.

“Hang it all, Fanny, can’t you let a fellow answer for himself?” grumbled Ronny with his good-natured grin.

“Oh, I’m sorry, darling,” she said, fawning on him. “A man must always be his own master.”

“Well I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Ronny, smiling around the table. “I want to make myself useful one way or another…”

“Why not take up weaving?” suggested Sigi.

Ronny took it with perfect good humor. “Ah, Sigi, you’re always getting at me! I can’t help it if I’m not as bright as you are!”

Mrs. Lacy was furious at the girl. “He doesn’t have to work at anything if it doesn’t suit him,” she said.

That was pretty direct, and something like consternation descended on the other side of the table. Sigi bit her lip and lowered her head, while the two Lacys turned greenish.

“If I want to spend my money on Ronny who’s to prevent me?” Mrs. Lacy went on. “It’s my money. Look at him! Isn’t he worth it?”

“For Heaven’s sake, Fanny,” Ronny protested, laughing. “It’s not a question of money, I hope.”

“Of course it isn’t. But just the same it’s a great satisfaction to me to fill your pockets and tell you to go and spend it…It’s better yours than some others I could mention.” She glanced at the ghastly young men across the table.

Both these young men had been given jobs in the tin-plate organization, and had been dropped through sheer incapacity. They were in receipt of large allowances from the Lacy estate, but all the most expensive schools, servants and clothes could not endow them with grace or style.

Harold, the elder, looked like a dressed-up booby, while Wesley’s long nose with a quivering tip made him look rat-like. Such young men would have hated the handsome, graceful Ronny anyhow, but when Ronny, in addition, threatened their inheritance, their hatred must have mounted almost to the point of insanity. Neither of them said anything, but their eyes burned when they looked at him.

“You remember my saying that I had something to tell you, Rosika,” Mrs. Lacy went on. “Well, this is it. Ronny and I are married.”

“Married!” We all exclaimed in tones of stupefaction.

Mrs. Lacy was charmed with the sensation she had created. “Married, sure enough,” she said smiling. “All Ronny’s bags have been carried into my room yonder.”

A ghastly silence fell on us. I couldn’t bear to look at the three whose hopes had been so cruelly destroyed. The stewards went around the table filling the champagne glasses, and retired. Something had to be said. Mme. Storey raised her glass.

“To the newly-weds!”

They all drank to it. The wine must nearly have strangled them. Sigi Van Vliet was livid under her make up. These hard, self-controlled women have a terrible capacity for emotion. I pitied her. She kept her head up.

“When did it happen?” she asked, smiling.

“Three hours before the ship sailed,” said Mrs. Lacy. “We went down to the Municipal Building and were married by an alderman. I arranged it so that the news would not be released until after we cast off. It will be all over town now.”

Silence threatened us again. Mme. Storey averted it by saying: “You’re a deep one, Fanny! Fancy exploding a mine under us like this!”

“It was the only thing to do,” said Mrs. Lacy. “Think of the disgusting publicity if the news had got out before we sailed!”

Harold Lacy, who had a face like a large suet pudding with some trifling irregularity in its surface, and two raisins sticking out, stammered: “I’m sure I hope you’ll be happy, Aunt Fanny.”

“How often have I told you not to call me that,” she said pettishly. “Coming from a man of your age to me it’s ridiculous. Drop the aunt, please, or if you like call me Mrs. Mackworth.”

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

Rage made his cousin Wesley look meaner and more rat-like than ever. “Congratulations,” he drawled.

Mrs. Lacy didn’t like the sound of it, and undertook to crack her whip over them.

“Of course my marriage will make a considerable difference in the family situation,” she said, smiling unpleasantly. “But I want you and Harold to know that I shall continue to pay you your allowances. And I shall leave you enough to keep you. You’d be out of luck if you were dependent on your own resources. Always provided, of course, that you bear yourselves towards me in a friendly manner. I’m not obliged to leave you anything.”

“It was understood…” Wesley began, drawing his lips back over his teeth.

“By whom?” demanded Mrs. Lacy.

“After all, Harold and I are Lacys.”

“What of it? Did you and Harold help to make the Lacy fortune? Or did your fathers before you? No! They were both hangers-on of my husband until they died…”

Mme. Storey interrupted this tirade by laying a hand on Mrs. Lacy’s arm.

“This is a purely family matter,” she murmured. “Bella and I will retire.”

Mrs. Lacy gripped her arm.

“I won’t have it,” she said. “Let the men go if they can’t mend their manners.”

Harold and Wesley arose, bowed in a hangdog fashion and went out. Wesley’s narrowed shoulders were drawn up and bent with rage.

In order to make clear what happened later I must say a word about the arrangement of the suite. On the left of the sitting-room as you faced the veranda was a large bedroom which the two young men shared.

On the right was a similar room which was to be the bridal chamber. A second door on the right gave on a passage leading to Sigi’s cabin. In this passage were several doors leading to the inside cabins occupied by the servants of the party.

Well, we were left sitting at the table with Sigi Van Vliet. I noticed that she had emptied her wine glass several times and had filled it without waiting for a servant. She had never ceased smiling at Ronny in her diamond-hard fashion. He avoided her eye. I suppose that Sigi perceived that her goose was cooked with Mrs. Lacy. At any rate she became quite reckless.

“I’m waiting to hear the bridegroom make a speech,” she said in a voice like breaking icicles. “It’s customary, isn’t it? All about the raptures and roses of young love. And the blisses of the wedded state…”

Mrs. Lacy sprang up trembling with rage.

“Silence, miss!…Leave the room!”

Sigi extended her tall figure, and moved from the table.

“With pleasure,” she drawled.

“Tomorrow morning you can move to another part of the ship!” cried Mrs. Lacy. “And you can return to New York on this ship, or go to the devil for all I care! Don’t think that I can’t see through you, miss! I saw through you from the beginning! But you were useful to me. Now I’m through with you!”

“Well, that’s nice to hear, too,” said Sigi.

“Oh, is it? Is it? Well maybe this won’t be so nice! You were useful to me and I put you down in my will for a good round sum. Well you’ll never get that now. Not a cent! Not a cent!”

“Saves me the trouble of refusing it,” said Sigi, quietly closing the door after her.

Mrs. Lacy dropped back in her chair fairly weeping with rage. Sigi had deprived her of the last word.

“Bella and I must go,” said Mme. Storey.

Mrs. Lacy literally held her down. “No! No! No! They’ve gone now. We can be happy again…I’m glad you were here, Rosika. You have seen what I have to put up with. No one would believe it who hadn’t seen it. And, after all I have done for them, the miserable ingrates!”

My employer was becoming just a shade impatient. “Why on earth did you bring them with you on your honeymoon?” she asked.

“Well,” said Mrs. Lacy spitefully, “in the case of Harold and Wesley, I thought they needed a lesson. I’m so sick of the way they come around me, trying to pry into my affairs under the pretence of hypocritical affection. Wesley is the worst. He set out to master me. It would make you die laughing. I didn’t ask them to come on this, trip. When I told them I was going to England they said they would come along too, to look after me. And I thought: Very well, my lads! If you insist on it, let it be on your own heads!”

“But Sigi Van Vliet…you must have known…”

“Certainly I knew! The way she ran after Ronny was perfectly disgusting. I wanted to give her a lesson, too. I thought it would pay her off to bring her along. I have always hated that girl and her sneery ways. Held herself so high! I put up with it because she was useful to me. Now I don’t need her any longer.”

Mine. Storey and I glanced at each other without expression. What a world! we were both thinking.

Ronny applied himself to soothing his ruffled bride. He flung an arm around her, and she dropped her head comfortably on his shoulder.

“There, darling!” he murmured. “Forget about them all! They have nothing to do with you and me. I’m glad things came to a show-down with Sigi. Now we won’t have to have her around during the rest of the voyage. I wish we could shift the others, too.”

“We shall!” said Mrs. Lacy–-I mean Mrs. Mackworth–tearfully.

“Good!” said Ronny. “Then we can be quite alone together. That’s what I want–always!”

She raised up, and took his face between her two jewelled hands.

“Oh, Ronny, you’re such a dear!” she whispered. “You can always cheer me up. Oh, Ronny, I love you to distraction!”

“That’s right!” he said, grinning boyishly. “That’s what a wife ought to do!”

Mme. Storey and I took our leave.


We did not turn in right away, but went for a stroll on deck. We said very little about what had happened. It wasn’t necessary because we were in agreement about it. As Mme. Storey put it:

“Too much money makes monkeys of people.”

“I suppose it’s having power without any responsibility,” I said.

“Exactly. I’m thankful I’ve had to work hard for what I’ve got.”

We walked aft where we could get out from under the roof and see the sky. It was an enchanting mild night, the sea heaving slowly like some vast creature with a troubled breast. All the stars were hanging out their little lamps. Mme Storey gazing up at them, murmured:

“What must they think of us foolish mortals!”

Later, in passing the smoking room we saw Ronny Mackworth drinking at the bar with some men. He saw us and presently overtook us on the promenade. He seemed quite untroubled. We stopped and leaned on the rail.

“I see you had the same desire,” he said. “A little air. Fanny is preparing to go to bed.”

A complicated business with her, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

He appeared to feel that some apology was necessary for her. “She’s had a hard day,” he said deprecatingly. “She got all roiled up.”

Mme. Storey had no intention of allowing herself to be drawn into a further discussion of their affairs. “Naturally,” she said pleasantly. “Do you know, I think our Orion is a much finer constellation than the famous Southern Cross.”

After a few minutes of idle talk he bade us good night and disappeared below.

We continued to stroll about the deck. After a few minutes we saw Ronny coming towards us again. He seemed a little perturbed.

“Have you seen Fanny?” he asked. “No.”

“When I left her she said she was going to bed, but when I went back she wasn’t there. She hadn’t undressed.”

“I suppose she wanted a little exercise, too,” suggested Mme. Storey.

“Very likely. But I don’t see her anywhere.”

After having looked in the various public rooms he passed us again. “Good-night,” he said. “This is final. Fanny must have gone to call on some of her friends. I’ll wait for her below.”

We soon followed him.

In the morning we lay late and enjoyed the rare luxury ( for me) of having breakfast in bed. The door was open between our two rooms and we could talk back and forth. Later we dressed and went on deck. It was a delicious sunny morning with a calm sea, and the entire passenger list was lined up on the promenade in deck chairs. We walked.

We saw Sigi Van Vliet, who had already gathered a new circle of friends about her, and was keeping them laughing. A clever and attractive girl, but so hard I couldn’t conceive of any man falling in love with her. I suppose that was why she was still hanging from the bough. She greeted us in a friendly fashion, even eagerly.

Passing the veranda café we also saw Harold and Wesley Lacy. They appeared to be quarrelling in low voices. They looked the other way when they saw us.

We were beginning to think about lunch with pleased anticipation when a boy in uniform offered Mme. Storey a note.

“Captain Coulson’s compliments, madame, and would you please send an answer by word of mouth.”

She read the note and said:

“How nice! The captain asks us to lunch with him in his cabin.” She said to the boy: “Madame Storey’s compliments to Captain Coulson, and she and Miss Brickley will be delighted to lunch with him.”

After having powdered our noses, we proceeded up from deck to deck to the altitude of the bridge where the Commander was waiting for us, a grizzled British seaman, every inch of him. His capacious quarters delighted me even more than the Imperial suite because it was so workmanlike. Lunch was set for three in his sitting-room, but the captain was obviously worried. When we were left alone he said at once:

“I have a confession to make to you. I am taking advantage of our old acquaintanceship…”

“Say friendship,” corrected Mme. Storey.

“I hardly dared without some encouragement…Our friendship then. Lunch was only an excuse. I have need to consult with you, and I thought we had better meet here where no one would know of it. It’s a serious matter.”

Mme. Storey knew that he was no alarmist.

“What’s the matter?” she asked quietly.

“It has been reported to me that the rich Mrs. Lacy–or, as I should now call her, Mrs. Mackworth, and her young husband have disappeared from the ship.”

Mme. Storey and I sat down very suddenly.

“Good Heavens!” she murmured aghast. “Both of them!”

“Both of them. It is not known yet. I gave orders that the matter was to be kept secret until I had talked with you.”

“How long have you known this, Captain?”

“About half an hour. It appears that Mrs. Mackworth’s maid, hearing nothing from her mistress or no sound from the room, became alarmed about noon and knocked on the door. Receiving no answer, she tried the handle. It was unlocked. She found the room empty.

“An odd thing is that the young man had undressed. His evening clothes were lying there. But the lady had not. Her night things were waiting for her. Neither bed had been occupied. She sent a steward to inform me. I am having the ship searched from stem to stern.”

“Naturally,” said Mme. Storey. “But of course nothing will come of it. There is no earthly reason why they should go and hide themselves. Particularly if the young man was in his pyjamas.”

The captain sat down then. He pulled out an enormous white handkerchief and mopped his honest, sweating face. “Good God!” he muttered. “Then you think…you think they may have been done away with!”

“There is every reason to think so,” said Mme. Storey gravely.

“Oh, this is terrible, madame! Think of the hideous publicity! It will ruin my ship!”

Mme. Storey tersely described the situation that the dinner party revealed. “You see, it has all the potentialities of murder,” she said. “Unluckily one can never foresee murder.”

“These people,” he said excitedly, “the secretary, the two nephews, they must be questioned immediately.” He reached for a bell.

Mme. Storey held up her hand. “Wait, Captain! Let me examine the suite first, and question the lady’s maid.”

“Right!” he said. “I rely on you absolutely. This sort of thing…” he waved his hands helplessly. “But if it had to happen, how lucky I am to have you at my side!”

“Let me go down to the Imperial suite ahead of you,” said Mme. Storey. “It will attract less attention.”

“But your lunch,” he objected.

“Never mind lunch.”

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This is a free sample. Please purchase full version of the book to continue.

This is a free sample. Please purchase full version of the book to continue.