"I don't like this," said T. X., suddenly. "Does anybody know that we have made these discoveries?"
"Nobody outside the office," said Mansus, "unless, unless..."
"Unless what?" asked the other, irritably. "Don't be a jimp, Mansus. Get it off your mind. What is it?"
"I am wondering," said Mansus slowly, "if the landlord at Great James Street said anything. He knows we have made a search."
"We can easily find that out," said T. X.
They hailed a taxi and drove to Great James Street. That respectable thoroughfare was wrapped in sleep and it was some time before the landlord could be aroused. Recognizing T. X. he checked his sarcasm, which he had prepared for a keyless lodger, and led the way into the drawing room.
"You didn't tell me not to speak about it, Mr. Meredith," he said, in an aggrieved tone, "and as a matter of fact I have spoken to nobody except the gentleman who called the same day."
"What did he want?" asked T. X.
"He said he had only just discovered that Mr. Vassalaro had stayed with me and he wanted to pay whatever rent was due," replied the other.
"What like of man was he?" asked T. X.
The brief description the man gave sent a cold chill to the Commissioner's heart.
"Kara for a ducat!" he said, and swore long and variously.
"Cadogan Square," he ordered.
His ring was answered promptly. Mr. Kara was out of town, had indeed been out of town since Saturday. This much the man-servant explained with a suspicious eye upon his visitors, remembering that his predecessor had lost his job from a too confiding friendliness with spurious electric fitters. He did not know when Mr. Kara would return, perhaps it would be a long time and perhaps a short time. He might come back that night or he might not.
"You are wasting your young life," said T. X. bitterly. "You ought to be a fortune teller."
"This settles the matter," he said, in the cab on the way back. "Find out the first train for Tavistock in the morning and wire the George Hotel to have a car waiting."
"Why not go to-night?" suggested the other. "There is the midnight train. It is rather slow, but it will get you there by six or seven in the morning."
"Too late," he said, "unless you can invent a method of getting from here to Paddington in about fifty seconds."
The morning journey to Devonshire was a dispiriting one despite the fineness of the day. T. X. had an uncomfortable sense that something distressing had happened. The run across the moor in the fresh spring air revived him a little.
As they spun down to the valley of the Dart, Mansus touched his arm.
"Look at that," he said, and pointed to the blue heavens where, a mile above their heads, a white-winged aeroplane, looking no larger than a very distant dragon fly, shimmered in the sunlight.
"By Jove!" said T. X. "What an excellent way for a man to escape!"
"It's about the only way," said Mansus.
The significance of the aeroplane was borne in upon T. X. a few minutes later when he was held up by an armed guard. A glance at his card was enough to pass him.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
"A prisoner has escaped," said the sentry.
"Escaped—by aeroplane?" asked T. X.
"I don't know anything about aeroplanes, sir. All I know is that one of the working party got away."
The car came to the gates of the prison and T. X. sprang out, followed by his assistant. He had no difficulty in finding the Governor, a greatly perturbed man, for an escape is a very serious matter.
The official was inclined to be brusque in his manner, but again the magic card produced a soothing effect.
"I am rather rattled," said the Governor. "One of my men has got away. I suppose you know that?"
"And I am afraid another of your men is going away, sir," said T. X., who had a curious reverence for military authority. He produced his paper and laid it on the governor's table.
"This is an order for the release of John Lexman, convicted under sentence of fifteen years penal servitude."
The Governor looked at it.
"Dated last night," he said, and breathed a long sigh of relief. "Thank the Lord!—that is the man who escaped!"
Two years after the events just described, T. X. journeying up to London from Bath was attracted by a paragraph in the Morning Post. It told him briefly that Mr. Remington Kara, the influential leader of the Greek Colony, had been the guest of honor at a dinner of the Hellenic Society.
T. X. had only seen Kara for a brief space of time following that tragic morning, when he had discovered not only that his best friend had escaped from Dartmoor prison and disappeared, as it were, from the world at a moment when his pardon had been signed, but that that friend's wife had also vanished from the face of the earth.
At the same time—it might, as even T. X. admitted, have been the veriest coincidence that Kara had also cleared out of London to reappear at the end of six months. Any question addressed to him, concerning the whereabouts of the two unhappy people, was met with a bland expression of ignorance as to their whereabouts.
John Lexman was somewhere in the world, hiding as he believed from justice, and with him was his wife. T. X. had no doubt in his mind as to this solution of the puzzle. He had caused to be published the story of the pardon and the circumstances under which that pardon had been secured, and he had, moreover, arranged for an advertisement to be inserted in the principal papers of every European country.
It was a moot question amongst the departmental lawyers as to whether John Lexman was not guilty of a technical and punishable offence for prison breaking, but this possibility did not keep T. X. awake at nights. The circumstances of the escape had been carefully examined. The warder responsible had been discharged from the service, and had almost immediately purchased for himself a beer house in Falmouth, for a sum which left no doubt in the official mind that he had been the recipient of a heavy bribe.
Who had been the guiding spirit in that escape—Mrs. Lexman, or Kara?
It was impossible to connect Kara with the event. The motor car had been traced to Exeter, where it had been hired by a "foreign-looking gentleman," but the chauffeur, whoever he was, had made good his escape. An inspection of Kara's hangars at Wembley showed that his two monoplanes had not been removed, and T. X. failed entirely to trace the owner of the machine he had seen flying over Dartmoor on the fatal morning.
T. X. was somewhat baffled and a little amused by the disinclination of the authorities to believe that the escape had been effected by this method at all. All the events of the trial came back to him, as he watched the landscape spinning past.
He set down the newspaper with a little sigh, put his feet on the cushions of the opposite seat and gave himself up to reverie. Presently he returned to his journals and searched them idly for something to interest him in the final stretch of journey between Newbury and Paddington.
Presently he found it in a two column article with the uninspiring title, "The Mineral Wealth of Tierra del Fuego." It was written brightly with a style which was at once easy and informative. It told of adventures in the marshes behind St. Sebastian Bay and journeys up the Guarez Celman river, of nights spent in primeval forests and ended in a geological survey, wherein the commercial value of syenite, porphyry, trachite and dialite were severally canvassed.
The article was signed "G. G." It is said of T. X. that his greatest virtue was his curiosity. He had at the tip of his fingers the names of all the big explorers and author-travellers, and for some reason he could not place "G. G." to his satisfaction, in fact he had an absurd desire to interpret the initials into "George Grossmith." His inability to identify the writer irritated him, and his first act on reaching his office was to telephone to one of the literary editors of the Times whom he knew.
"Not my department," was the chilly reply, "and besides we never give away the names of our contributors. Speaking as a person outside the office I should say that 'G. G.' was 'George Gathercole' the explorer you know, the fellow who had an arm chewed off by a lion or something."
"George Gathercole!" repeated T. X. "What an ass I am."
"Yes," said the voice at the other end the wire, and he had rung off before T. X. could think of something suitable to say.
Having elucidated this little side-line of mystery, the matter passed from the young Commissioner's mind. It happened that morning that his work consisted of dealing with John Lexman's estate.
With the disappearance of the couple he had taken over control of their belongings. It had not embarrassed him to discover that he was an executor under Lexman's will, for he had already acted as trustee to the wife's small estate, and had been one of the parties to the ante-nuptial contract which John Lexman had made before his marriage.
The estate revenues had increased very considerably. All the vanished author's books were selling as they had never sold before, and the executor's work was made the heavier by the fact that Grace Lexman had possessed an aunt who had most in inconsiderately died, leaving a considerable fortune to her "unhappy niece."
"I will keep the trusteeship another year," he told the solicitor who came to consult him that morning. "At the end of that time I shall go to the court for relief."
"Do you think they will ever turn up?" asked the solicitor, an elderly and unimaginative man.
"Of course, they'll turn up!" said T. X. impatiently; "all the heroes of Lexman's books turn up sooner or later. He will discover himself to us at a suitable moment, and we shall be properly thrilled."
That Lexman would return he was sure. It was a faith from which he did not swerve.
He had as implicit a confidence that one day or other Kara, the magnificent, would play into his hands.
There were some queer stories in circulation concerning the Greek, but on the whole they were stories and rumours which were difficult to separate from the malicious gossip which invariably attaches itself to the rich and to the successful.
One of these was that Kara desired something more than an Albanian chieftainship, which he undoubtedly enjoyed. There were whispers of wider and higher ambitions. Though his father had been born a Greek, he had indubitably descended in a direct line from one of those old Mprets of Albania, who had exercised their brief authority over that turbulent land.
The man's passion was for power. To this end he did not spare himself. It was said that he utilized his vast wealth for this reason, and none other, and that whatever might have been the irregularities of his youth—and there were adduced concrete instances—he was working toward an end with a singleness of purpose, from which it was difficult to withhold admiration.
T. X. kept in his locked desk a little red book, steel bound and triple locked, which he called his "Scandalaria." In this he inscribed in his own irregular writing the titbits which might not be published, and which often helped an investigator to light upon the missing threads of a problem. In truth he scorned no source of information, and was conscienceless in the compilation of this somewhat chaotic record.
The affairs of John Lexman recalled Kara, and Kara's great reception. Mansus would have made arrangements to secure a verbatim report of the speeches which were made, and these would be in his hands by the night. Mansus did not tell him that Kara was financing some very influential people indeed, that a certain Under-secretary of State with a great number of very influential relations had been saved from bankruptcy by the timely advances which Kara had made. This T. X. had obtained through sources which might be hastily described as discreditable. Mansus knew of the baccarat establishment in Albemarle Street, but he did not know that the neurotic wife of a very great man indeed, no less than the Minister of Justice, was a frequent visitor to that establishment, and that she had lost in one night some 6,000 pounds. In these circumstances it was remarkable, thought T. X., that she should report to the police so small a matter as the petty pilfering of servants. This, however, she had done and whilst the lesser officers of Scotland Yard were interrogating pawnbrokers, the men higher up were genuinely worried by the lady's own lapses from grace.
It was all sordid but, unfortunately, conventional, because highly placed people will always do underbred things, where money or women are concerned, but it was necessary, for the proper conduct of the department which T. X. directed, that, however sordid and however conventional might be the errors which the great ones of the earth committed, they should be filed for reference.
The motto which T. X. went upon in life was, "You never know."
The Minister of Justice was a very important person, for he was a personal friend of half the monarchs of Europe. A poor man, with two or three thousand a year of his own, with no very definite political views and uncommitted to the more violent policies of either party, he succeeded in serving both, with profit to himself, and without earning the obloquy of either. Though he did not pursue the blatant policy of the Vicar of Bray, yet it is fact which may be confirmed from the reader's own knowledge, that he served in four different administrations, drawing the pay and emoluments of his office from each, though the fundamental policies of those four governments were distinct.
Lady Bartholomew, the wife of this adaptable Minister, had recently departed for San Remo. The newspapers announced the fact and spoke vaguely of a breakdown which prevented the lady from fulfilling her social engagements.
T. X., ever a Doubting Thomas, could trace no visit of nerve specialist, nor yet of the family practitioner, to the official residence in Downing Street, and therefore he drew conclusions. In his own "Who's Who" T. X. noted the hobbies of his victims which, by the way, did not always coincide with the innocent occupations set against their names in the more pretentious volume. Their follies and their weaknesses found a place and were recorded at a length (as it might seem to the uninformed observer) beyond the limit which charity allowed.
Lady Mary Bartholomew's name appeared not once, but many times, in the erratic records which T. X. kept. There was a plain matter-of-fact and wholly unobjectionable statement that she was born in 1874, that she was the seventh daughter of the Earl of Balmorey, that she had one daughter who rejoiced in the somewhat unpromising name of Belinda Mary, and such further information as a man might get without going to a great deal of trouble.
T. X., refreshing his memory from the little red book, wondered what unexpected tragedy had sent Lady Bartholomew out of London in the middle of the season. The information was that the lady was fairly well off at this moment, and this fact made matters all the more puzzling and almost induced him to believe that, after all, the story was true, and a nervous breakdown really was the cause of her sudden departure. He sent for Mansus.
"You saw Lady Bartholomew off at Charing Cross, I suppose?"
"She went alone?"
"She took her maid, but otherwise she was alone. I thought she looked ill."
"She has been looking ill for months past," said T. X., without any visible expression of sympathy.
"Did she take Belinda Mary?"
Mansus was puzzled. "Belinda Mary?" he repeated slowly. "Oh, you mean the daughter. No, she's at a school somewhere in France."
T. X. whistled a snatch of a popular song, closed the little red book with a snap and replaced it in his desk.
"I wonder where on earth people dig up names like Belinda Mary?" he mused. "Belinda Mary must be rather a weird little animal—the Lord forgive me for speaking so about my betters! If heredity counts for anything she ought to be something between a head waiter and a pack of cards. Have you lost anything'?"
Mansus was searching his pockets.
"I made a few notes, some questions I wanted to ask you about and Lady Bartholomew was the subject of one of them. I have had her under observation for six months; do you want it kept up?"
T. X. thought awhile, then shook his head.
"I am only interested in Lady Bartholomew in so far as Kara is interested in her. There is a criminal for you, my friend!" he added, admiringly.
Mansus busily engaged in going through the bundles of letters, slips of paper and little notebooks he had taken from his pocket, sniffed audibly.
"Have you a cold?" asked T. X. politely.
"No, sir," was the reply, "only I haven't much opinion of Kara as a criminal. Besides, what has he got to be a criminal about? He has all that he requires in the money department, he's one of the most popular people in London, and certainly one of the best-looking men I've ever seen in my life. He needs nothing."
T. X. regarded him scornfully.
"You're a poor blind brute," he said, shaking his head; don't you know that great criminals are never influenced by material desires, or by the prospect of concrete gains? The man, who robs his employer's till in order to give the girl of his heart the 25-pearl and ruby brooch her soul desires, gains nothing but the glow of satisfaction which comes to the man who is thought well of. The majority of crimes in the world are committed by people for the same reason—they want to be thought well of. Here is Doctor X. who murdered his wife because she was a drunkard and a slut, and he dared not leave her for fear the neighbours would have doubts as to his respectability. Here is another gentleman who murders his wives in their baths in order that he should keep up some sort of position and earn the respect of his friends and his associates. Nothing roused him more quickly to a frenzy of passion than the suggestion that he was not respectable. Here is the great financier, who has embezzled a million and a quarter, not because he needed money, but because people looked up to him. Therefore, he must build great mansions, submarine pleasure courts and must lay out huge estates—because he wished that he should be thought well of.
Mansus sniffed again.
"What about the man who half murders his wife, does he do that to be well thought of?" he asked, with a tinge of sarcasm.
T. X. looked at him pityingly.
"The low-brow who beats his wife, my poor Mansus," he said, "does so because she doesn't think well of him. That is our ruling passion, our national characteristic, the primary cause of most crimes, big or little. That is why Kara is a bad criminal and will, as I say, end his life very violently."
He took down his glossy silk hat from the peg and slipped into his overcoat.
"I am going down to see my friend Kara," he said. "I have a feeling that I should like to talk with him. He might tell me something."
His acquaintance with Kara's menage had been mere hearsay. He had interviewed the Greek once after his return, but since all his efforts to secure information concerning the whereabouts of John Lexman and his wife—the main reason for his visit—had been in vain, he had not repeated his visit.
The house in Cadogan Square was a large one, occupying a corner site. It was peculiarly English in appearance with its window boxes, its discreet curtains, its polished brass and enamelled doorway. It had been the town house of Lord Henry Gratham, that eccentric connoisseur of wine and follower of witless pleasure. It had been built by him "round a bottle of port," as his friends said, meaning thereby that his first consideration had been the cellarage of the house, and that when those cellars had been built and provision made for the safe storage of his priceless wines, the house had been built without the architect's being greatly troubled by his lordship. The double cellars of Gratham House had, in their time, been one of the sights of London. When Henry Gratham lay under eight feet of Congo earth (he was killed by an elephant whilst on a hunting trip) his executors had been singularly fortunate in finding an immediate purchaser. Rumour had it that Kara, who was no lover of wine, had bricked up the cellars, and their very existence passed into domestic legendary.
The door was opened by a well-dressed and deferential man-servant and T. X. was ushered into the hall. A fire burnt cheerily in a bronze grate and T. X. had a glimpse of a big oil painting of Kara above the marble mantle-piece.
"Mr. Kara is very busy, sir," said the man.
"Just take in my card," said T. X. "I think he may care to see me."
The man bowed, produced from some mysterious corner a silver salver and glided upstairs in that manner which well-trained servants have, a manner which seems to call for no bodily effort. In a minute he returned.
"Will you come this way, sir," he said, and led the way up a broad flight of stairs.
At the head of the stairs was a corridor which ran to the left and to the right. From this there gave four rooms. One at the extreme end of the passage on the right, one on the left, and two at fairly regular intervals in the centre.
When the man's hand was on one of the doors, T. X. asked quietly, "I think I have seen you before somewhere, my friend."
The man smiled.
"It is very possible, sir. I was a waiter at the Constitutional for some time."
T. X. nodded.
"That is where it must have been," he said.
The man opened the door and announced the visitor.
T. X. found himself in a large room, very handsomely furnished, but just lacking that sense of cosiness and comfort which is the feature of the Englishman's home.
Kara rose from behind a big writing table, and came with a smile and a quick step to greet the visitor.
"This is a most unexpected pleasure," he said, and shook hands warmly.
T. X. had not seen him for a year and found very little change in this strange young man. He could not be more confident than he had been, nor bear himself with a more graceful carriage. Whatever social success he had achieved, it had not spoiled him, for his manner was as genial and easy as ever.
"I think that will do, Miss Holland," he said, turning to the girl who, with notebook in hand, stood by the desk.
"Evidently," thought T. X., "our Hellenic friend has a pretty taste in secretaries."
In that one glance he took her all in—from the bronze-brown of her hair to her neat foot.
T. X. was not readily attracted by members of the opposite sex. He was self-confessed a predestined bachelor, finding life and its incidence too absorbing to give his whole mind to the serious problem of marriage, or to contract responsibilities and interests which might divert his attention from what he believed was the greater game. Yet he must be a man of stone to resist the freshness, the beauty and the youth of this straight, slender girl; the pink-and-whiteness of her, the aliveness and buoyancy and the thrilling sense of vitality she carried in her very presence.
"What is the weirdest name you have ever heard?" asked Kara laughingly. "I ask you, because Miss Holland and I have been discussing a begging letter addressed to us by a Maggie Goomer."
The girl smiled slightly and in that smile was paradise, thought T. X.
"The weirdest name?" he repeated, "why I think the worst I have heard for a long time is Belinda Mary."
"That has a familiar ring," said Kara.
T. X. was looking at the girl.
She was staring at him with a certain languid insolence which made him curl up inside. Then with a glance at her employer she swept from the room.
"I ought to have introduced you," said Kara. "That was my secretary, Miss Holland. Rather a pretty girl, isn't she?"
"Very," said T. X., recovering his breath.
"I like pretty things around me," said Kara, and somehow the complacency of the remark annoyed the detective more than anything that Kara had ever said to him.
The Greek went to the mantlepiece, and taking down a silver cigarette box, opened and offered it to his visitor. Kara was wearing a grey lounge suit; and although grey is a very trying colour for a foreigner to wear, this suit fitted his splendid figure and gave him just that bulk which he needed.
"You are a most suspicious man, Mr. Meredith," he smiled.
"Suspicious! I?" asked the innocent T. X.
"I am sure you want to enquire into the character of all my present staff. I am perfectly satisfied that you will never be at rest until you learn the antecedents of my cook, my valet, my secretary—"
T. X. held up his hand with a laugh.
"Spare me," he said. "It is one of my failings, I admit, but I have never gone much farther into your domestic affairs than to pry into the antecedents of your very interesting chauffeur."
A little cloud passed over Kara's face, but it was only momentary.
"Oh, Brown," he said, airily, with just a perceptible pause between the two words.
"It used to be Smith," said T. X., "but no matter. His name is really Poropulos."
"Oh, Poropulos," said Kara gravely, "I dismissed him a long time ago."
"Pensioned hire, too, I understand," said T. X.
The other looked at him awhile, then, "I am very good to my old servants," he said slowly and, changing the subject; "to what good fortune do I owe this visit?"
T. X. selected a cigarette before he replied.
"I thought you might be of some service to me," he said, apparently giving his whole attention to the cigarette.
"Nothing would give me greater pleasure," said Kara, a little eagerly. "I am afraid you have not been very keen on continuing what I hoped would have ripened into a valuable friendship, more valuable to me perhaps," he smiled, "than to you."
"I am a very shy man," said the shameless T. X., "difficult to a fault, and rather apt to underrate my social attractions. I have come to you now because you know everybody—by the way, how long have you had your secretary!" he asked abruptly.
Kara looked up at the ceiling for inspiration.
"Four, no three months," he corrected, "a very efficient young lady who came to me from one of the training establishments. Somewhat uncommunicative, better educated than most girls in her position—for example, she speaks and writes modern Greek fairly well."
"A treasure!" suggested T. X.
"Unusually so," said Kara. "She lives in Marylebone Road, 86a is the address. She has no friends, spends most of her evenings in her room, is eminently respectable and a little chilling in her attitude to her employer."
T. X. shot a swift glance at the other.
"Why do you tell me all this?" he asked.
"To save you the trouble of finding out," replied the other coolly. "That insatiable curiosity which is one of the equipments of your profession, would, I feel sure, induce you to conduct investigations for your own satisfaction."
T. X. laughed.
"May I sit down?" he said.
The other wheeled an armchair across the room and T. X. sank into it. He leant back and crossed his legs, and was, in a second, the personification of ease.
"I think you are a very clever man, Monsieur Kara," he said.
The other looked down at him this time without amusement.
"Not so clever that I can discover the object of your visit," he said pleasantly enough.
"It is very simply explained," said T. X. "You know everybody in town. You know, amongst other people, Lady Bartholomew."
"I know the lady very well indeed," said Kara, readily,—too readily in fact, for the rapidity with which answer had followed question, suggested to T. X. that Kara had anticipated the reason for the call.
"Have you any idea," asked T. X., speaking with deliberation, "as to why Lady Bartholomew has gone out of town at this particular moment?"
"What an extraordinary question to ask me—as though Lady Bartholomew confided her plans to one who is little more than a chance acquaintance!"
"And yet," said T. X., contemplating the burning end of his cigarette, "you know her well enough to hold her promissory note."
"Promissory note?" asked the other.
His tone was one of involuntary surprise and T. X. swore softly to himself for now he saw the faintest shade of relief in Kara's face. The Commissioner realized that he had committed an error—he had been far too definite.
"When I say promissory note," he went on easily, as though he had noticed nothing, "I mean, of course, the securities which the debtor invariably gives to one from whom he or she has borrowed large sums of money."
Kara made no answer, but opening a drawer of his desk he took out a key and brought it across to where T. X. was sitting.
"Here is the key of my safe," he said quietly. "You are at liberty to go carefully through its contents and discover for yourself any promissory note which I hold from Lady Bartholomew. My dear fellow, you don't imagine I'm a moneylender, do you?" he said in an injured tone.
"Nothing was further from my thoughts," said T. X., untruthfully.
But the other pressed the key upon him.
"I should be awfully glad if you would look for yourself," he said earnestly. "I feel that in some way you associate Lady Bartholomew's illness with some horrible act of usury on my part—will you satisfy yourself and in doing so satisfy me?"
Now any ordinary man, and possibly any ordinary detective, would have made the conventional answer. He would have protested that he had no intention of doing anything of the sort; he would have uttered, if he were a man in the position which T. X. occupied, the conventional statement that he had no authority to search the private papers, and that he would certainly not avail himself of the other's kindness. But T. X. was not an ordinary person. He took the key and balanced it lightly in the palm of his hand.
"Is this the key of the famous bedroom safe?" he said banteringly.
Kara was looking down at him with a quizzical smile. "It isn't the safe you opened in my absence, on one memorable occasion, Mr. Meredith," he said. "As you probably know, I have changed that safe, but perhaps you don't feel equal to the task?"
"On the contrary," said T. X., calmly, and rising from the chair, "I am going to put your good faith to the test."
For answer Kara walked to the door and opened it.
"Let me show you the way," he said politely.
He passed along the corridor and entered the apartment at the end. The room was a large one and lighted by one big square window which was protected by steel bars. In the grate which was broad and high a huge fire was burning and the temperature of the room was unpleasantly close despite the coldness of the day.
"That is one of the eccentricities which you, as an Englishman, will never excuse in me," said Kara.
Near the foot of the bed, let into, and flush with, the wall, was a big green door of the safe.
"Here you are, Mr. Meredith," said Kara. "All the precious secrets of Remington Kara are yours for the seeking."
"I am afraid I've had my trouble for nothing," said T. X., making no attempt to use the key.
"That is an opinion which I share," said Kara, with a smile.
"Curiously enough," said T. X. "I mean just what you mean."
He handed the key to Kara.
"Won't you open it?" asked the Greek.
T. X. shook his head.
"The safe as far as I can see is a Magnus, the key which you have been kind enough to give me is legibly inscribed upon the handle 'Chubb.' My experience as a police officer has taught me that Chubb keys very rarely open Magnus safes."
Kara uttered an exclamation of annoyance.
"How stupid of me!" he said, "yet now I remember, I sent the key to my bankers, before I went out of town—I only came back this morning, you know. I will send for it at once."
"Pray don't trouble," murmured T. X. politely. He took from his pocket a little flat leather case and opened it. It contained a number of steel implements of curious shape which were held in position by a leather loop along the centre of the case. From one of these loops he extracted a handle, and deftly fitted something that looked like a steel awl to the socket in the handle. Looking in wonder, and with no little apprehension, Kara saw that the awl was bent at the head.
"What are you going to do?" he asked, a little alarmed.
"I'll show you," said T. X. pleasantly.
Very gingerly he inserted the instrument in the small keyhole and turned it cautiously first one way and then the other. There was a sharp click followed by another. He turned the handle and the door of the safe swung open.
"Simple, isn't it!" he asked politely.
In that second of time Kara's face had undergone a transformation. The eyes which met T. X. Meredith's blazed with an almost insane fury. With a quick stride Kara placed himself before the open safe.
"I think this has gone far enough, Mr. Meredith," he said harshly. "If you wish to search my safe you must get a warrant."
T. X. shrugged his shoulders, and carefully unscrewing the instrument he had employed and replacing it in the case, he returned it to his inside pocket.
"It was at your invitation, my dear Monsieur Kara," he said suavely. "Of course I knew that you were putting a bluff up on me with the key and that you had no more intention of letting me see the inside of your safe than you had of telling me exactly what happened to John Lexman."
The shot went home.
The face which was thrust into the Commissioner's was ridged and veined with passion. The lips were turned back to show the big white even teeth, the eyes were narrowed to slits, the jaw thrust out, and almost every semblance of humanity had vanished from his face.
"You—you—" he hissed, and his clawing hands moved suspiciously backward.
"Put up your hands," said T. X. sharply, "and be damned quick about it!"
In a flash the hands went up, for the revolver which T. X. held was pressed uncomfortably against the third button of the Greek's waistcoat.
"That's not the first time you've been asked to put up your hands, I think," said T. X. pleasantly.
His own left hand slipped round to Kara's hip pocket. He found something in the shape of a cylinder and drew it out from the pocket. To his surprise it was not a revolver, not even a knife; it looked like a small electric torch, though instead of a bulb and a bull's-eye glass, there was a pepper-box perforation at one end.
He handled it carefully and was about to press the small nickel knob when a strangled cry of horror broke from Kara.
"For God's sake be careful!" he gasped. "You're pointing it at me! Do not press that lever, I beg!"
"Will it explode!" asked T. X. curiously.
T. X. pointed the thing downward to the carpet and pressed the knob cautiously. As he did so there was a sharp hiss and the floor was stained with the liquid which the instrument contained. Just one gush of fluid and no more. T. X. looked down. The bright carpet had already changed colour, and was smoking. The room was filled with a pungent and disagreeable scent. T. X. looked from the floor to the white-faced man.
"Vitriol, I believe," he said, shaking his head admiringly. "What a dear little fellow you are!"
The man, big as he was, was on the point of collapse and mumbled something about self-defence, and listened without a word, whilst T. X., labouring under an emotion which was perfectly pardonable, described Kara, his ancestors and the possibilities of his future estate.
Very slowly the Greek recovered his self-possession.
"I didn't intend using it on you, I swear I didn't," he pleaded. "I'm surrounded by enemies, Meredith. I had to carry some means of protection. It is because my enemies know I carry this that they fight shy of me. I'll swear I had no intention of using it on you. The idea is too preposterous. I am sorry I fooled you about the safe."
"Don't let that worry you," said T. X. "I am afraid I did all the fooling. No, I cannot let you have this back again," he said, as the Greek put out his hand to take the infernal little instrument. "I must take this back to Scotland Yard; it's quite a long time since we had anything new in this shape. Compressed air, I presume."
Kara nodded solemnly.
"Very ingenious indeed," said T. X. "If I had a brain like yours," he paused, "I should do something with it—with a gun," he added, as he passed out of the room.
"My dear Mr. Meredith,
"I cannot tell you how unhappy and humiliated I feel that my little joke with you should have had such an uncomfortable ending. As you know, and as I have given you proof, I have the greatest admiration in the world for one whose work for humanity has won such universal recognition.
"I hope that we shall both forget this unhappy morning and that you will give me an opportunity of rendering to you in person, the apologies which are due to you. I feel that anything less will neither rehabilitate me in your esteem, nor secure for me the remnants of my shattered self-respect.
"I am hoping you will dine with me next week and meet a most interesting man, George Gathercole, who has just returned from Patagonia,—I only received his letter this morning— having made most remarkable discoveries concerning that country.
"I feel sure that you are large enough minded and too much a man of the world to allow my foolish fit of temper to disturb a relationship which I have always hoped would be mutually pleasant. If you will allow Gathercole, who will be unconscious of the part he is playing, to act as peacemaker between yourself and myself, I shall feel that his trip, which has cost me a large sum of money, will not have been wasted.
"I am, dear Mr. Meredith,
"Yours very sincerely,
Kara folded the letter and inserted it in its envelope. He rang a bell on his table and the girl who had so filled T. X. with a sense of awe came from an adjoining room.
"You will see that this is delivered, Miss Holland."
She inclined her head and stood waiting. Kara rose from his desk and began to pace the room.
"Do you know T. X. Meredith?" he asked suddenly.
"I have heard of him," said the girl.
"A man with a singular mind," said Kara; "a man against whom my favourite weapon would fail."
She looked at him with interest in her eyes.
"What is your favourite weapon, Mr. Kara?" she asked.
"Fear," he said.
If he expected her to give him any encouragement to proceed he was disappointed. Probably he required no such encouragement, for in the presence of his social inferiors he was somewhat monopolizing.
"Cut a man's flesh and it heals," he said. "Whip a man and the memory of it passes, frighten him, fill him with a sense of foreboding and apprehension and let him believe that something dreadful is going to happen either to himself or to someone he loves—better the latter—and you will hurt him beyond forgetfulness. Fear is a tyrant and a despot, more terrible than the rack, more potent than the stake. Fear is many-eyed and sees horrors where normal vision only sees the ridiculous."
"Is that your creed?" she asked quietly.
"Part of it, Miss Holland," he smiled.
She played idly with the letter she held in her hand, balancing it on the edge of the desk, her eyes downcast.
"What would justify the use of such an awful weapon?" she asked.
"It is amply justified to secure an end," he said blandly. "For example—I want something—I cannot obtain that something through the ordinary channel or by the employment of ordinary means. It is essential to me, to my happiness, to my comfort, or my amour-propre, that that something shall be possessed by me. If I can buy it, well and good. If I can buy those who can use their influence to secure this thing for me, so much the better. If I can obtain it by any merit I possess, I utilize that merit, providing always, that I can secure my object in the time, otherwise—"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I see," she said, nodding her head quickly. "I suppose that is how blackmailers feel."
"That is a word I never use, nor do I like to hear it employed," he said. "Blackmail suggests to me a vulgar attempt to obtain money."
"Which is generally very badly wanted by the people who use it," said the girl, with a little smile, "and, according to your argument, they are also justified."
"It is a matter of plane," he said airily. "Viewed from my standpoint, they are sordid criminals—the sort of person that T. X. meets, I presume, in the course of his daily work. T. X.," he went on somewhat oracularly, "is a man for whom I have a great deal of respect. You will probably meet him again, for he will find an opportunity of asking you a few questions about myself. I need hardly tell you—"
He lifted his shoulders with a deprecating smile.
"I shall certainly not discuss your business with any person," said the girl coldly.
"I am paying you 3 pounds a week, I think," he said. "I intend increasing that to 5 pounds because you suit me most admirably."
"Thank you," said the girl quietly, "but I am already being paid quite sufficient."
She left him, a little astonished and not a little ruffled.
To refuse the favours of Remington Kara was, by him, regarded as something of an affront. Half his quarrel with T. X. was that gentleman's curious indifference to the benevolent attitude which Kara had persistently adopted in his dealings with the detective.
He rang the bell, this time for his valet.
"Fisher," he said, "I am expecting a visit from a gentleman named Gathercole—a one-armed gentleman whom you must look after if he comes. Detain him on some pretext or other because he is rather difficult to get hold of and I want to see him. I am going out now and I shall be back at 6.30. Do whatever you can to prevent him going away until I return. He will probably be interested if you take him into the library."
"Very good, sir," said the urbane Fisher, "will you change before you go out?"
Kara shook his head.
"I think I will go as I am," he said. "Get me my fur coat. This beastly cold kills me," he shivered as he glanced into the bleak street. "Keep my fire going, put all my private letters in my bedroom, and see that Miss Holland has her lunch."
Fisher followed him to his car, wrapped the fur rug about his legs, closed the door carefully and returned to the house. From thence onward his behaviour was somewhat extraordinary for a well-bred servant. That he should return to Kara's study and set the papers in order was natural and proper.
That he should conduct a rapid examination of all the drawers in Kara's desk might be excused on the score of diligence, since he was, to some extent, in the confidence of his employer.
Kara was given to making friends of his servants—up to a point. In his more generous moments he would address his bodyguard as "Fred," and on more occasions than one, and for no apparent reason, had tipped his servant over and above his salary.
Mr. Fred Fisher found little to reward him for his search until he came upon Kara's cheque book which told him that on the previous day the Greek had drawn 6,000 pounds in cash from the bank. This interested him mightily and he replaced the cheque book with the tightened lips and the fixed gaze of a man who was thinking rapidly. He paid a visit to the library, where the secretary was engaged in making copies of Kara's correspondence, answering letters appealing for charitable donations, and in the hack words which fall to the secretaries of the great.
He replenished the fire, asked deferentially for any instructions and returned again to his quest. This time he made the bedroom the scene of his investigations. The safe he did not attempt to touch, but there was a small bureau in which Kara would have placed his private correspondence of the morning. This however yielded no result.
By the side of the bed on a small table was a telephone, the sight of which apparently afforded the servant a little amusement. This was the private 'phone which Kara had been instrumental in having fixed to Scotland Yard—as he had explained to his servants.
"Rum cove," said Fisher.
He paused for a moment before the closed door of the room and smilingly surveyed the great steel latch which spanned the door and fitted into an iron socket securely screwed to the framework. He lifted it gingerly—there was a little knob for the purpose—and let it fall gently into the socket which had been made to receive it on the door itself.
"Rum cove," he said again, and lifting the latch to the hook which held it up, left the room, closing the door softly behind him. He walked down the corridor, with a meditative frown, and began to descend the stairs to the hall.
He was less than half-way down when the one maid of Kara's household came up to meet him.
"There's a gentleman who wants to see Mr. Kara," she said, "here is his card."
Fisher took the card from the salver and read, "Mr. George Gathercole, Junior Travellers' Club."
"I'll see this gentleman," he said, with a sudden brisk interest.
He found the visitor standing in the hall.
He was a man who would have attracted attention, if only from the somewhat eccentric nature of his dress and his unkempt appearance. He was dressed in a well-worn overcoat of a somewhat pronounced check, he had a top-hat, glossy and obviously new, at the back of his head, and the lower part of his face was covered by a ragged beard. This he was plucking with nervous jerks, talking to himself the while, and casting a disparaging eye upon the portrait of Remington Kara which hung above the marble fireplace. A pair of pince-nez sat crookedly on his nose and two fat volumes under his arm completed the picture. Fisher, who was an observer of some discernment, noticed under the overcoat a creased blue suit, large black boots and a pair of pearl studs.
The newcomer glared round at the valet.
"Take these!" he ordered peremptorily, pointing to the books under his arm.
Fisher hastened to obey and noted with some wonder that the visitor did not attempt to assist him either by loosening his hold of the volumes or raising his hand. Accidentally the valet's hand pressed against the other's sleeve and he received a shock, for the forearm was clearly an artificial one. It was against a wooden surface beneath the sleeve that his knuckles struck, and this view of the stranger's infirmity was confirmed when the other reached round with his right hand, took hold of the gloved left hand and thrust it into the pocket of his overcoat.
"Where is Kara?" growled the stranger.
"He will be back very shortly, sir," said the urbane Fisher.
"Out, is he?" boomed the visitor. "Then I shan't wait. What the devil does he mean by being out? He's had three years to be out!"
"Mr. Kara expects you, sir. He told me he would be in at six o'clock at the latest."
"Six o'clock, ye gods'." stormed the man impatiently. "What dog am I that I should wait till six?"
He gave a savage little tug at his beard.
"Six o'clock, eh? You will tell Mr. Kara that I called. Give me those books."
"But I assure you, sir,—" stammered Fisher.
"Give me those books!" roared the other.
Deftly he lifted his left hand from the pocket, crooked the elbow by some quick manipulation, and thrust the books, which the valet most reluctantly handed to him, back to the place from whence he had taken them.
"Tell Mr. Kara I will call at my own time—do you understand, at my own time. Good morning to you."
"If you would only wait, sir," pleaded the agonized Fisher.
"Wait be hanged," snarled the other. "I've waited three years, I tell you. Tell Mr. Kara to expect me when he sees me!"
He went out and most unnecessarily banged the door behind him. Fisher went back to the library. The girl was sealing up some letters as he entered and looked up.
"I am afraid, Miss Holland, I've got myself into very serious trouble."
"What is that, Fisher!" asked the girl.
"There was a gentleman coming to see Mr. Kara, whom Mr. Kara particularly wanted to see."
"Mr. Gathercole," said the girl quickly.
"Yes, miss, I couldn't get him to stay though."
She pursed her lips thoughtfully.
"Mr. Kara will be very cross, but I don't see how you can help it. I wish you had called me."
"He never gave a chance, miss," said Fisher, with a little smile, "but if he comes again I'll show him straight up to you."
"Is there anything you want, miss?" he asked as he stood at the door.
"What time did Mr. Kara say he would be back?"
"At six o'clock, miss," the man replied.
"There is rather an important letter here which has to be delivered."
"Shall I ring up for a messenger?"
"No, I don't think that would be advisable. You had better take it yourself."
Kara was in the habit of employing Fisher as a confidential messenger when the occasion demanded such employment.
"I will go with pleasure, miss," he said.
It was a heaven-sent opportunity for Fisher, who had been inventing some excuse for leaving the house. She handed him the letter and he read without a droop of eyelid the superscription:
"T. X. Meredith, Esq., Special Service Dept., Scotland Yard, Whitehall."
He put it carefully in his pocket and went from the room to change. Large as the house was Kara did not employ a regular staff of servants. A maid and a valet comprised the whole of the indoor staff. His cook, and the other domestics, necessary for conducting an establishment of that size, were engaged by the day.
Kara had returned from the country earlier than had been anticipated, and, save for Fisher, the only other person in the house beside the girl, was the middle-aged domestic who was parlour-maid, serving-maid and housekeeper in one.
Miss Holland sat at her desk to all appearance reading over the letters she had typed that afternoon but her mind was very far from the correspondence before her. She heard the soft thud of the front door closing, and rising she crossed the room rapidly and looked down through the window to the street. She watched Fisher until he was out of sight; then she descended to the hall and to the kitchen.
It was not the first visit she had made to the big underground room with its vaulted roof and its great ranges—which were seldom used nowadays, for Kara gave no dinners.
The maid—who was also cook—arose up as the girl entered.
"It's a sight for sore eyes to see you in my kitchen, miss," she smiled.
"I'm afraid you're rather lonely, Mrs. Beale," said the girl sympathetically.
"Lonely, miss!" cried the maid. "I fairly get the creeps sitting here hour after hour. It's that door that gives me the hump."
She pointed to the far end of the kitchen to a soiled looking door of unpainted wood.
"That's Mr. Kara's wine cellar—nobody's been in it but him. I know he goes in sometimes because I tried a dodge that my brother—who's a policeman—taught me. I stretched a bit of white cotton across it an' it was broke the next morning."
"Mr. Kara keeps some of his private papers in there," said the girl quietly, "he has told me so himself."
"H'm," said the woman doubtfully, "I wish he'd brick it up—the same as he has the lower cellar—I get the horrors sittin' here at night expectin' the door to open an' the ghost of the mad lord to come out—him that was killed in Africa."
Miss Holland laughed.
"I want you to go out now," she said, "I have no stamps."
Mrs. Beale obeyed with alacrity and whilst she was assuming a hat—being desirous of maintaining her prestige as housekeeper in the eyes of Cadogan Square, the girl ascended to the upper floor.
Again she watched from the window the disappearing figure.
Once out of sight Miss Holland went to work with a remarkable deliberation and thoroughness. From her bag she produced a small purse and opened it. In that case was a new steel key. She passed swiftly down the corridor to Kara's room and made straight for the safe.
In two seconds it was open and she was examining its contents. It was a large safe of the usual type. There were four steel drawers fitted at the back and at the bottom of the strong box. Two of these were unlocked and contained nothing more interesting than accounts relating to Kara's estate in Albania.
The top pair were locked. She was prepared for this contingency and a second key was as efficacious as the first. An examination of the first drawer did not produce all that she had expected. She returned the papers to the drawer, pushed it to and locked it. She gave her attention to the second drawer. Her hand shook a little as she pulled it open. It was her last chance, her last hope.
There were a number of small jewel-boxes almost filling the drawer. She took them out one by one and at the bottom she found what she had been searching for and that which had filled her thoughts for the past three months.
It was a square case covered in red morocco leather. She inserted her shaking hand and took it out with a triumphant little cry.
"At last," she said aloud, and then a hand grasped her wrist and in a panic she turned to meet the smiling face of Kara.
She felt her knees shake under her and thought she was going to swoon. She put out her disengaged hand to steady herself, and if the face which was turned to him was pale, there was a steadfast resolution in her dark eyes.
"Let me relieve you of that, Miss Holland," said Kara, in his silkiest tones.
He wrenched rather than took the box from her hand, replaced it carefully in the drawer, pushed the drawer to and locked it, examining the key as he withdrew it. Then he closed the safe and locked that.
"Obviously," he said presently, "I must get a new safe."
He had not released his hold of her wrist nor did he, until he had led her from the room back to the library. Then he released the girl, standing between her and the door, with folded arms and that cynical, quiet, contemptuous smile of his upon his handsome face.
"There are many courses which I can adopt," he said slowly. "I can send for the police—when my servants whom you have despatched so thoughtfully have returned, or I can take your punishment into my own hands."
"So far as I am concerned," said the girl coolly, "you may send for the police."
She leant back against the edge of the desk, her hands holding the edge, and faced him without so much as a quaver.
"I do not like the police," mused Kara, when there came a knock at the door.
Kara turned and opened it and after a low strained conversation he returned, closing the door and laid a paper of stamps on the girl's table.
"As I was saying, I do not care for the police, and I prefer my own method. In this particular instance the police obviously would not serve me, because you are not afraid of them and in all probability you are in their pay—am I right in supposing that you are one of Mr. T. X. Meredith's accomplices!"
"I do not know Mr. T. X. Meredith," she replied calmly, "and I am not in any way associated with the police."
"Nevertheless," he persisted, "you do not seem to be very scared of them and that removes any temptation I might have to place you in the hands of the law. Let me see," he pursed his lips as he applied his mind to the problem.
She half sat, half stood, watching him without any evidence of apprehension, but with a heart which began to quake a little. For three months she had played her part and the strain had been greater than she had confessed to herself. Now the great moment had come and she had failed. That was the sickening, maddening thing about it all. It was not the fear of arrest or of conviction, which brought a sinking to her heart; it was the despair of failure, added to a sense of her helplessness against this man.
"If I had you arrested your name would appear in all the papers, of course," he said, narrowly, "and your photograph would probably adorn the Sunday journals," he added expectantly.
"That doesn't appeal to me," she said.
"I am afraid it doesn't," he replied, and strolled towards her as though to pass her on his way to the window. He was abreast of her when he suddenly swung round and catching her in his arms he caught her close to him. Before she could realise what he planned, he had stooped swiftly and kissed her full upon the mouth.
"If you scream, I shall kiss you again," he said, "for I have sent the maid to buy some more stamps—to the General Post Office."
"Let me go," she gasped.
Now for the first time he saw the terror in her eyes, and there surged within him that mad sense of triumph, that intoxication of power which had been associated with the red letter days of his warped life.
"You're afraid!" he bantered her, half whispering the words, "you're afraid now, aren't you? If you scream I shall kiss you again, do you hear?"
"For God's sake, let me go," she whispered.
He felt her shaking in his arms, and suddenly he released her with a little laugh, and she sank trembling from head to foot upon the chair by her desk.
"Now you're going to tell me who sent you here," he went on harshly, "and why you came. I never suspected you. I thought you were one of those strange creatures one meets in England, a gentlewoman who prefers working for her living to the more simple business of getting married. And all the time you were spying—clever—very clever!"
The girl was thinking rapidly. In five minutes Fisher would return. Somehow she had faith in Fisher's ability and willingness to save her from a situation which she realized was fraught with the greatest danger to herself. She was horribly afraid. She knew this man far better than he suspected, realized the treachery and the unscrupulousness of him. She knew he would stop short of nothing, that he was without honour and without a single attribute of goodness.
He must have read her thoughts for he came nearer and stood over her.
"You needn't shrink, my young friend," he said with a little chuckle. "You are going to do just what I want you to do, and your first act will be to accompany me downstairs. Get up."
He half lifted, half dragged her to her feet and led her from the room. They descended to the hall together and the girl spoke no word. Perhaps she hoped that she might wrench herself free and make her escape into the street, but in this she was disappointed. The grip about her arm was a grip of steel and she knew safety did not lie in that direction. She pulled back at the head of the stairs that led down to the kitchen.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked.
"I am going to put you into safe custody," he said. "On the whole I think it is best that the police take this matter in hand and I shall lock you into my wine cellar and go out in search of a policeman."
The big wooden door opened, revealing a second door and this Kara unbolted. She noticed that both doors were sheeted with steel, the outer on the inside, and the inner door on the outside. She had no time to make any further observations for Kara thrust her into the darkness. He switched on a light.
"I will not deny you that," he said, pushing her back as she made a frantic attempt to escape. He swung the outer door to as she raised her voice in a piercing scream, and clapping his hand over her mouth held her tightly for a moment.
"I have warned you," he hissed.
She saw his face distorted with rage. She saw Kara transfigured with devilish anger, saw that handsome, almost godlike countenance thrust into hers, flushed and seamed with malignity and a hatefulness beyond understanding and then her senses left her and she sank limp and swooning into his arms.
When she recovered consciousness she found herself lying on a plain stretcher bed. She sat up suddenly. Kara had gone and the door was closed. The cellar was dry and clean and its walls were enamelled white. Light was supplied by two electric lamps in the ceiling. There was a table and a chair and a small washstand, and air was evidently supplied through unseen ventilators. It was indeed a prison and no less, and in her first moments of panic she found herself wondering whether Kara had used this underground dungeon of his before for a similar purpose.
She examined the room carefully. At the farthermost end was another door and this she pushed gently at first and then vigorously without producing the slightest impression. She still had her bag, a small affair of black moire, which hung from her belt, in which was nothing more formidable than a penknife, a small bottle of smelling salts and a pair of scissors. The latter she had used for cutting out those paragraphs from the daily newspapers which referred to Kara's movements.
They would make a formidable weapon, and wrapping her handkerchief round the handle to give it a better grip she placed it on the table within reach. She was dimly conscious all the time that she had heard something about this wine cellar—something which, if she could recollect it, would be of service to her.
Then in a flash she remembered that there was a lower cellar, which according to Mrs. Beale was never used and was bricked up. It was approached from the outside, down a circular flight of stairs. There might be a way out from that direction and would there not be some connection between the upper cellar and the lower!
She set to work to make a closer examination of the apartment.
The floor was of concrete, covered with a light rush matting. This she carefully rolled up, starting at the door. One half of the floor was uncovered without revealing the existence of any trap. She attempted to pull the table into the centre of the room, better to roll the matting, but found it fixed to the wall, and going down on her knees, she discovered that it had been fixed after the matting had been laid.
Obviously there was no need for the fixture and, she tapped the floor with her little knuckle. Her heart started racing. The sound her knocking gave forth was a hollow one. She sprang up, took her bag from the table, opened the little penknife and cut carefully through the thin rushes. She might have to replace the matting and it was necessary she should do her work tidily.
Soon the whole of the trap was revealed. There was an iron ring, which fitted flush with the top and which she pulled. The trap yielded and swung back as though there were a counterbalance at the other end, as indeed there was. She peered down. There was a dim light below—the reflection of a light in the distance. A flight of steps led down to the lower level and after a second's hesitation she swung her legs over the cavity and began her descent.
She was in a cellar slightly smaller than that above her. The light she had seen came from an inner apartment which would be underneath the kitchen of the house. She made her way cautiously along, stepping on tip-toe. The first of the rooms she came to was well-furnished. There was a thick carpet on the floor, comfortable easy-chairs, a little bookcase well filled, and a reading lamp. This must be Kara's underground study, where he kept his precious papers.
A smaller room gave from this and again it was doorless. She looked in and after her eyes had become accustomed to the darkness she saw that it was a bathroom handsomely fitted.
The room she was in was also without any light which came from the farthermost chamber. As the girl strode softly across the well-carpeted room she trod on something hard. She stooped and felt along the floor and her fingers encountered a thin steel chain. The girl was bewildered-almost panic-stricken. She shrunk back from the entrance of the inner room, fearful of what she would see. And then from the interior came a sound that made her tingle with horror.
It was a sound of a sigh, long and trembling. She set her teeth and strode through the doorway and stood for a moment staring with open eyes and mouth at what she saw.
"My God!" she breathed, "London. . . . in the twentieth century. . . !"
Superintendent Mansus had a little office in Scotland Yard proper, which, he complained, was not so much a private bureau, as a waiting-room to which repaired every official of the police service who found time hanging on his hands. On the afternoon of Miss Holland's surprising adventure, a plainclothes man of "D" Division brought to Mr. Mansus's room a very scared domestic servant, voluble, tearful and agonizingly penitent. It was a mood not wholly unfamiliar to a police officer of twenty years experience and Mr. Mansus was not impressed.
"If you will kindly shut up," he said, blending his natural politeness with his employment of the vernacular, "and if you will also answer a few questions I will save you a lot of trouble. You were Lady Bartholomew's maid weren't you?"
"Yes, sir," sobbed the red-eyed Mary Ann.
"And you have been detected trying to pawn a gold bracelet, the property of Lady Bartholomew?"
The maid gulped, nodded and started breathlessly upon a recital of her wrongs.
"Yes, sir—but she practically gave it to me, sir, and I haven't had my wages for two months, sir, and she can give that foreigner thousands and thousands of pounds at a time, sir, but her poor servants she can't pay—no, she can't. And if Sir William knew especially about my lady's cards and about the snuffbox, what would he think, I wonder, and I'm going to have my rights, for if she can pay thousands to a swell like Mr. Kara she can pay me and—"
Mansus jerked his head.
"Take her down to the cells," he said briefly, and they led her away, a wailing, woeful figure of amateur larcenist.
In three minutes Mansus was with T. X. and had reduced the girl's incoherence to something like order.
"This is important," said T. X.; "produce the Abigail."
"The—?" asked the puzzled officer.
"The skivvy—slavey—hired help—get busy," said T. X. impatiently.
They brought her to T. X. in a condition bordering upon collapse.
"Get her a cup of tea," said the wise chief. "Sit down, Mary Ann, and forget all your troubles."
"Oh, sir, I've never been in this position before," she began, as she flopped into the chair they put for her.
"Then you've had a very tiring time," said T. X. "Now listen—"
"I've been respectable—"
"Forget it!" said T. X., wearily. "Listen! If you'll tell me the whole truth about Lady Bartholomew and the money she paid to Mr. Kara—"
"Two thousand pounds—two separate thousand and by all accounts-"
"If you will tell me the truth, I'll compound a felony and let you go free."
It was a long time before he could prevail upon her to clear her speech of the ego which insisted upon intruding. There were gaps in her narrative which he bridged. In the main it was a believable story. Lady Bartholomew had lost money and had borrowed from Kara. She had given as security, the snuffbox presented to her husband's father, a doctor, by one of the Czars for services rendered, and was "all blue enamel and gold, and foreign words in diamonds." On the question of the amount Lady Bartholomew had borrowed, Abigail was very vague. All that she knew was that my lady had paid back two thousand pounds and that she was still very distressed ("in a fit" was the phrase the girl used), because apparently Kara refused to restore the box.
There had evidently been terrible scenes in the Bartholomew menage, hysterics and what not, the principal breakdown having occurred when Belinda Mary came home from school in France.
"Miss Bartholomew is home then. Where is she?" asked T. X.
Here the girl was more vague than ever. She thought the young lady had gone back again, anyway Miss Belinda had been very much upset. Miss Belinda had seen Dr. Williams and advised that her mother should go away for a change.
"Miss Belinda seems to be a precocious young person," said T. X. "Did she by any chance see Mr. Kara?"
"Oh, no," explained the girl. "Miss Belinda was above that sort of person. Miss Belinda was a lady, if ever there was one."
"And how old is this interesting young woman?" asked T. X. curiously.
"She is nineteen," said the girl, and the Commissioner, who had pictured Belinda in short plaid frocks and long pigtails, and had moreover visualised her as a freckled little girl with thin legs and snub nose, was abashed.
He delivered a short lecture on the sacred rights of property, paid the girl the three months' wages which were due to her—he had no doubt as to the legality of her claim—and dismissed her with instructions to go back to the house, pack her box and clear out.
After the girl had gone, T. X. sat down to consider the position. He might see Kara and since Kara had expressed his contrition and was probably in a more humble state of mind, he might make reparation. Then again he might not. Mansus was waiting and T. X. walked back with him to his little office.
"I hardly know what to make of it," he said in despair.
"If you can give me Kara's motive, sir, I can give you a solution," said Mansus.
T. X. shook his head.
"That is exactly what I am unable to give you," he said.
He perched himself on Mansus's desk and lit a cigar.
"I have a good mind to go round and see him," he said after a while.
"Why not telephone to him?" asked Mansus. "There is his 'phone straight into his boudoir."
He pointed to a small telephone in a corner of the room.
"Oh, he persuaded the Commissioner to run the wire, did he?" said T. X. interested, and walked over to the telephone.
He fingered the receiver for a little while and was about to take it off, but changed his mind.
"I think not," he said, "I'll go round and see him to-morrow. I don't hope to succeed in extracting the confidence in the case of Lady Bartholomew, which he denied me over poor Lexman."
"I suppose you'll never give up hope of seeing Mr. Lexman again," smiled Mansus, busily arranging a new blotting pad.
Before T. X. could answer there came a knock at the door, and a uniformed policeman, entered. He saluted T. X.
"They've just sent an urgent letter across from your office, sir. I said I thought you were here."
He handed the missive to the Commissioner. T. X. took it and glanced at the typewritten address. It was marked "urgent" and "by hand." He took up the thin, steel, paper-knife from the desk and slit open the envelope. The letter consisted of three or four pages of manuscript and, unlike the envelope, it was handwritten.
"My dear T. X.," it began, and the handwriting was familiar.
Mansus, watching the Commissioner, saw the puzzled frown gather on his superior's forehead, saw the eyebrows arch and the mouth open in astonishment, saw him hastily turn to the last page to read the signature and then:
"Howling apples!" gasped T. X. "It's from John Lexman!"
His hand shook as he turned the closely written pages. The letter was dated that afternoon. There was no other address than "London."
"My dear T. X.," it began, "I do not doubt that this letter will give you a little shock, because most of my friends will have believed that I am gone beyond return. Fortunately or unfortunately that is not so. For myself I could wish—but I am not going to take a very gloomy view since I am genuinely pleased at the thought that I shall be meeting you again. Forgive this letter if it is incoherent but I have only this moment returned and am writing at the Charing Cross Hotel. I am not staying here, but I will let you have my address later. The crossing has been a very severe one so you must forgive me if my letter sounds a little disjointed. You will be sorry to hear that my dear wife is dead. She died abroad about six months ago. I do not wish to talk very much about it so you will forgive me if I do not tell you any more.
"My principal object in writing to you at the moment is an official one. I suppose I am still amenable to punishment and I have decided to surrender myself to the authorities to-night. You used to have a most excellent assistant in Superintendent Mansus, and if it is convenient to you, as I hope it will be, I will report myself to him at 10.15. At any rate, my dear T. X., I do not wish to mix you up in my affairs and if you will let me do this business through Mansus I shall be very much obliged to you.
"I know there is no great punishment awaiting me, because my pardon was apparently signed on the night before my escape. I shall not have much to tell you, because there is not much in the past two years that I would care to recall. We endured a great deal of unhappiness and death was very merciful when it took my beloved from me.
"Do you ever see Kara in these days?
"Will you tell Mansus to expect me at between ten and half-past, and if he will give instructions to the officer on duty in the hall I will come straight up to his room.
"With affectionate regards, my dear fellow, I am,
T. X. read the letter over twice and his eyes were troubled.
"Poor girl," he said softly, and handed the letter to Mansus. "He evidently wants to see you because he is afraid of using my friendship to his advantage. I shall be here, nevertheless."
"What will be the formality?" asked Mansus.
"There will be no formality," said the other briskly. "I will secure the necessary pardon from the Home Secretary and in point of fact I have it already promised, in writing."
He walked back to Whitehall, his mind fully occupied with the momentous events of the day. It was a raw February evening, sleet was falling in the street, a piercing easterly wind drove even through his thick overcoat. In such doorways as offered protection from the bitter elements the wreckage of humanity which clings to the West end of London, as the singed moth flutters about the flame that destroys it, were huddled for warmth.
T. X. was a man of vast human sympathies.
All his experience with the criminal world, all his disappointments, all his disillusions had failed to quench the pity for his unfortunate fellows. He made it a rule on such nights as these, that if, by chance, returning late to his office he should find such a shivering piece of jetsam sheltering in his own doorway, he would give him or her the price of a bed.
In his own quaint way he derived a certain speculative excitement from this practice. If the doorway was empty he regarded himself as a winner, if some one stood sheltered in the deep recess which is a feature of the old Georgian houses in this historic thoroughfare, he would lose to the extent of a shilling.
He peered forward through the semi-darkness as he neared the door of his offices.
"I've lost," he said, and stripped his gloves preparatory to groping in his pocket for a coin.
Somebody was standing in the entrance, but it was obviously a very respectable somebody. A dumpy, motherly somebody in a seal-skin coat and a preposterous bonnet.
"Hullo," said T. X. in surprise, "are you trying to get in here?"
"I want to see Mr. Meredith," said the visitor, in the mincing affected tones of one who excused the vulgar source of her prosperity by frequently reiterated claims to having seen better days.
"Your longing shall be gratified," said T. X. gravely.
He unlocked the heavy door, passed through the uncarpeted passage—there are no frills on Government offices—and led the way up the stairs to the suite on the first floor which constituted his bureau.
He switched on all the lights and surveyed his visitor, a comfortable person of the landlady type.
"A good sort," thought T. X., "but somewhat overweighted with lorgnettes and seal-skin."
"You will pardon my coming to see you at this hour of the night," she began deprecatingly, "but as my dear father used to say, 'Hopi soit qui mal y pense.'"
"Your dear father being in the garter business?" suggested T. X. humorously. "Won't you sit down, Mrs. ——"
"Mrs. Cassley," beamed the lady as she seated herself. "He was in the paper hanging business. But needs must, when the devil drives, as the saying goes."
"What particular devil is driving you, Mrs. Cassley?" asked T. X., somewhat at a loss to understand the object of this visit.
"I may be doing wrong," began the lady, pursing her lips, "and two blacks will never make a white."
"And all that glitters is not gold," suggested T. X. a little wearily. "Will you please tell me your business, Mrs. Cassley? I am a very hungry man."
"Well, it's like this, sir," said Mrs. Cassley, dropping her erudition, and coming down to bedrock homeliness; "I've got a young lady stopping with me, as respectable a gel as I've had to deal with. And I know what respectability is, I might tell you, for I've taken professional boarders and I have been housekeeper to a doctor."
"You are well qualified to speak," said T. X. with a smile. "And what about this particular young lady of yours! By the way what is your address?"
"86a Marylebone Road," said the lady.
T. X. sat up.
"Yes?" he said quickly. "What about your young lady?"
"She works as far as I can understand," said the loquacious landlady, "with a certain Mr. Kara in the typewriting line. She came to me four months ago."
"Never mind when she came to you," said T. X. impatiently. "Have you a message from the lady?"
"Well, it's like this, sir," said Mrs. Cassley, leaning forward confidentially and speaking in the hollow tone which she had decided should accompany any revelation to a police officer, "this young lady said to me, 'If I don't come any night by 8 o'clock you must go to T. X. and tell him—'!"
She paused dramatically.
"Yes, yes," said T. X. quickly, "for heaven's sake go on, woman."
"'Tell him,'" said Mrs. Cassley, "'that Belinda Mary—'"
He sprang to his feet.
"Belinda Mary!" he breathed, "Belinda Mary!" In a flash he saw it all. This girl with a knowledge of modern Greek, who was working in Kara's house, was there for a purpose. Kara had something of her mother's, something that was vital and which he would not part with, and she had adopted this method of securing that some thing. Mrs. Cassley was prattling on, but her voice was merely a haze of sound to him. It brought a strange glow to his heart that Belinda Mary should have thought of him.
"Only as a policeman, of course," said the still, small voice of his official self. "Perhaps!" said the human T. X., defiantly.
He got on the telephone to Mansus and gave a few instructions.
"You stay here," he ordered the astounded Mrs. Cassley; "I am going to make a few investigations."
Kara was at home, but was in bed. T. X. remembered that this extraordinary man invariably went to bed early and that it was his practice to receive visitors in this guarded room of his. He was admitted almost at once and found Kara in his silk dressing-gown lying on the bed smoking. The heat of the room was unbearable even on that bleak February night.
"This is a pleasant surprise," said Kara, sitting up; "I hope you don't mind my dishabille."
T. X. came straight to the point.
"Where is Miss Holland!" he asked.
"Miss Holland?" Kara's eyebrows advertised his astonishment. "What an extraordinary question to ask me, my dear man! At her home, or at the theatre or in a cinema palace—I don't know how these people employ their evenings."
"She is not at home," said T. X., "and I have reason to believe that she has not left this house."
"What a suspicious person you are, Mr. Meredith!" Kara rang the bell and Fisher came in with a cup of coffee on a tray.
"Fisher," drawled Kara. "Mr. Meredith is anxious to know where Miss Holland is. Will you be good enough to tell him, you know more about her movements than I do."
"As far as I know, sir," said Fisher deferentially, "she left the house about 5.30, her usual hour. She sent me out a little before five on a message and when I came back her hat and her coat had gone, so I presume she had gone also."
"Did you see her go?" asked T. X.
The man shook his head.
"No, sir, I very seldom see the lady come or go. There has been no restrictions placed upon the young lady and she has been at liberty to move about as she likes. I think I am correct in saying that, sir," he turned to Kara.
"You will probably find her at home."
He shook his finger waggishly at T. X.
"What a dog you are," he jibed, "I ought to keep the beauties of my household veiled, as we do in the East, and especially when I have a susceptible policeman wandering at large."
T. X. gave jest for jest. There was nothing to be gained by making trouble here. After a few amiable commonplaces he took his departure. He found Mrs. Cassley being entertained by Mansus with a wholly fictitious description of the famous criminals he had arrested.
"I can only suggest that you go home," said T. X. "I will send a police officer with you to report to me, but in all probability you will find the lady has returned. She may have had a difficulty in getting a bus on a night like this."
A detective was summoned from Scotland Yard and accompanied by him Mrs. Cassley returned to her domicile with a certain importance. T. X. looked at his watch. It was a quarter to ten.
"Whatever happens, I must see old Lexman," he said. "Tell the best men we've got in the department to stand by for eventualities. This is going to be one of my busy days."
Kara lay back on his down pillows with a sneer on his face and his brain very busy. What started the train of thought he did not know, but at that moment his mind was very far away. It carried him back a dozen years to a dirty little peasant's cabin on the hillside outside Durazzo, to the livid face of a young Albanian chief, who had lost at Kara's whim all that life held for a man, to the hateful eyes of the girl's father, who stood with folded arms glaring down at the bound and manacled figure on the floor, to the smoke-stained rafters of this peasant cottage and the dancing shadows on the roof, to that terrible hour of waiting when he sat bound to a post with a candle flickering and spluttering lower and lower to the little heap of gunpowder that would start the trail toward the clumsy infernal machine under his chair. He remembered the day well because it was Candlemas day, and this was the anniversary. He remembered other things more pleasant. The beat of hoofs on the rocky roadway, the crash of the door falling in when the Turkish Gendarmes had battered a way to his rescue. He remembered with a savage joy the spectacle of his would-be assassins twitching and struggling on the gallows at Pezara and—he heard the faint tinkle of the front door bell.
Had T. X. returned! He slipped from the bed and went to the door, opened it slightly and listened. T. X. with a search warrant might be a source of panic especially if—he shrugged his shoulders. He had satisfied T. X. and allayed his suspicions. He would get Fisher out of the way that night and make sure.
The voice from the hall below was loud and gruff. Who could it be! Then he heard Fisher's foot on the stairs and the valet entered.
"Will you see Mr. Gathercole now!"
Kara breathed a sigh of relief and his face was wreathed in smiles.
"Why, of course. Tell him to come up. Ask him if he minds seeing me in my room."
"I told him you were in bed, sir, and he used shocking language," said Fisher.
"Send him up," he said, and then as Fisher was going out of the room he called him back.
"By the way, Fisher, after Mr. Gathercole has gone, you may go out for the night. You've got somewhere to go, I suppose, and you needn't come back until the morning."
"Yes, sir," said the servant.
Such an instruction was remarkably pleasing to him. There was much that he had to do and that night's freedom would assist him materially.
"Perhaps" Kara hesitated, "perhaps you had better wait until eleven o'clock. Bring me up some sandwiches and a large glass of milk. Or better still, place them on a plate in the hall."
"Very good, sir," said the man and withdrew.
Down below, that grotesque figure with his shiny hat and his ragged beard was walking up and down the tesselated hallway muttering to himself and staring at the various objects in the hall with a certain amused antagonism.
"Mr. Kara will see you, sir," said Fisher.
"Oh!" said the other glaring at the unoffending Fisher, "that's very good of him. Very good of this person to see a scholar and a gentleman who has been about his dirty business for three years. Grown grey in his service! Do you understand that, my man!"
"Yes, sir," said Fisher.
The man thrust out his face.
"Do you see those grey hairs in my beard?"
The embarrassed Fisher grinned.
"Is it grey!" challenged the visitor, with a roar.
"Yes, sir," said the valet hastily.
"Is it real grey?" insisted the visitor. "Pull one out and see!"
The startled Fisher drew back with an apologetic smile.
"I couldn't think of doing a thing like that, sir."
"Oh, you couldn't," sneered the visitor; "then lead on!"
Fisher showed the way up the stairs. This time the traveller carried no books. His left arm hung limply by his side and Fisher privately gathered that the hand had got loose from the detaining pocket without its owner being aware of the fact. He pushed open the door and announced, "Mr. Gathercole," and Kara came forward with a smile to meet his agent, who, with top hat still on the top of his head, and his overcoat dangling about his heels, must have made a remarkable picture.
Fisher closed the door behind them and returned to his duties in the hall below. Ten minutes later he heard the door opened and the booming voice of the stranger came down to him. Fisher went up the stairs to meet him and found him addressing the occupant of the room in his own eccentric fashion.
"No more Patagonia!" he roared, "no more Tierra del Fuego!" he paused.
"Certainly!" He replied to some question, "but not Patagonia," he paused again, and Fisher standing at the foot of the stairs wondered what had occurred to make the visitor so genial.
"I suppose your cheque will be honoured all right?" asked the visitor sardonically, and then burst into a little chuckle of laughter as he carefully closed the door.
He came down the corridor talking to himself, and greeted Fisher.
"Damn all Greeks," he said jovially, and Fisher could do no more than smile reproachfully, the smile being his very own, the reproach being on behalf of the master who paid him.
The traveller touched the other on the chest with his right hand.
"Never trust a Greek," he said, "always get your money in advance. Is that clear to you?"
"Yes, sir," said Fisher, "but I think you will always find that Mr. Kara is always most generous about money."
"Don't you believe it, don't you believe it, my poor man," said the other, "you—"
At that moment there came from Kara's room a faint "clang."
"What's that?" asked the visitor a little startled.
"Mr. Kara's put down his steel latch," said Fisher with a smile, "which means that he is not to be disturbed until—" he looked at his watch, "until eleven o'clock at any rate."
"He's a funk!" snapped the other, "a beastly funk!"
He stamped down the stairs as though testing the weight of every tread, opened the front door without assistance, slammed it behind him and disappeared into the night.
Fisher, his hands in his pockets, looked after the departing stranger, nodding his head in reprobation.
"You're a queer old devil," he said, and looked at his watch again.
It wanted five minutes to ten.
"IF you would care to come in, sir, I'm sure Lexman would be glad to see you," said T. X.; "it's very kind of you to take an interest in the matter."
The Chief Commissioner of Police growled something about being paid to take an interest in everybody and strolled with T. X. down one of the apparently endless corridors of Scotland Yard.
"You won't have any bother about the pardon," he said. "I was dining to-night with old man Bartholomew and he will fix that up in the morning."
"There will be no necessity to detain Lexman in custody?" asked T. X.
The Chief shook his head.
"None whatever," he said.
There was a pause, then,
"By the way, did Bartholomew mention Belinda Mary!"
The white-haired chief looked round in astonishment.
"And who the devil is Belinda Mary?" he asked.
T. X. went red.
"Belinda Mary," he said a little quickly, "is Bartholomew's daughter."
"By Jove," said the Commissioner, "now you mention it, he did—she is still in France."
"Oh, is she?" said T. X. innocently, and in his heart of hearts he wished most fervently that she was. They came to the room which Mansus occupied and found that admirable man waiting.
Wherever policemen meet, their conversation naturally drifts to "shop" and in two minutes the three were discussing with some animation and much difference of opinion, as far as T. X. was concerned, a series of frauds which had been perpetrated in the Midlands, and which have nothing to do with this story.
"Your friend is late," said the Chief Commissioner.
"There he is," cried T. X., springing up. He heard a familiar footstep on the flagged corridor, and sprung out of the room to meet the newcomer.
For a moment he stood wringing the hand of this grave man, his heart too full for words.
"My dear chap!" he said at last, "you don't know how glad I am to see you."
John Lexman said nothing, then,
"I am sorry to bring you into this business, T. X.," he said quietly.
"Nonsense," said the other, "come in and see the Chief."
He took John by the arm and led him into the Superintendent's room.
There was a change in John Lexman. A subtle shifting of balance which was not readily discoverable. His face was older, the mobile mouth a little more grimly set, the eyes more deeply lined. He was in evening dress and looked, as T. X. thought, a typical, clean, English gentleman, such an one as any self-respecting valet would be proud to say he had "turned out."
T. X. looking at him carefully could see no great change, save that down one side of his smooth shaven cheek ran the scar of an old wound; which could not have been much more than superficial.
"I must apologize for this kit," said John, taking off his overcoat and laying it across the back of a chair, "but the fact is I was so bored this evening that I had to do something to pass the time away, so I dressed and went to the theatre—and was more bored than ever."
T. X. noticed that he did not smile and that when he spoke it was slowly and carefully, as though he were weighing the value of every word.
"Now," he went on, "I have come to deliver myself into your hands."
"I suppose you have not seen Kara?" said T. X.
"I have no desire to see Kara," was the short reply.
"Well, Mr. Lexman," broke in the Chief, "I don't think you are going to have any difficulty about your escape. By the way, I suppose it was by aeroplane?"