"And you had an assistant?"
Again Lexman nodded.
"Unless you press me I would rather not discuss the matter for some little time, Sir George," he said, "there is much that will happen before the full story of my escape is made known."
Sir George nodded.
"We will leave it at that," he said cheerily, "and now I hope you have come back to delight us all with one of your wonderful plots."
"For the time being I have done with wonderful plots," said John Lexman in that even, deliberate tone of his. "I hope to leave London next week for New York and take up such of the threads of life as remain. The greater thread has gone."
The Chief Commissioner understood.
The silence which followed was broken by the loud and insistent ringing of the telephone bell.
"Hullo," said Mansus rising quickly; "that's Kara's bell."
With two quick strides he was at the telephone and lifted down the receiver.
"Hullo," he cried. "Hullo," he cried again. There was no reply, only the continuous buzzing, and when he hung up the receiver again, the bell continued ringing.
The three policemen looked at one another.
"There's trouble there," said Mansus.
"Take off the receiver," said T. X., "and try again."
Mansus obeyed, but there was no response.
"I am afraid this is not my affair," said John Lexman gathering up his coat. "What do you wish me to do, Sir George?"
"Come along to-morrow morning and see us, Lexman," said Sir George, offering his hand.
"Where are you staying!" asked T. X.
"At the Great Midland," replied the other, "at least my bags have gone on there."
"I'll come along and see you to-morrow morning. It's curious this should have happened the night you returned," he said, gripping the other's shoulder affectionately.
John Lexman did not speak for the moment.
"If anything happened to Kara," he said slowly, "if the worst that was possible happened to him, believe me I should not weep."
T. X. looked down into the other's eyes sympathetically.
"I think he has hurt you pretty badly, old man," he said gently.
John Lexman nodded.
"He has, damn him," he said between his teeth.
The Chief Commissioner's motor car was waiting outside and in this T. X., Mansus, and a detective-sergeant were whirled off to Cadogan Square. Fisher was in the hall when they rung the bell and opened the door instantly.
He was frankly surprised to see his visitors. Mr. Kara was in his room he explained resentfully, as though T. X. should have been aware of the fact without being told. He had heard no bell ringing and indeed had not been summoned to the room.
"I have to see him at eleven o'clock," he said, "and I have had standing instructions not to go to him unless I am sent for."
T. X. led the way upstairs, and went straight to Kara's room. He knocked, but there was no reply. He knocked again and on this failing to evoke any response kicked heavily at the door.
"Have you a telephone downstairs!" he asked.
"Yes, sir," replied Fisher.
T. X. turned to the detective-sergeant.
"'Phone to the Yard," he said, "and get a man up with a bag of tools. We shall have to pick this lock and I haven't got my case with me."
"Picking the lock would be no good, sir," said Fisher, an interested spectator, "Mr. Kara's got the latch down."
"I forgot that," said T. X. "Tell him to bring his saw, we'll have to cut through the panel here."
While they were waiting for the arrival of the police officer T. X. strove to attract the attention of the inmates of the room, but without success.
"Does he take opium or anything!" asked Mansus.
Fisher shook his head.
"I've never known him to take any of that kind of stuff," he said.
T. X. made a rapid survey of the other rooms on that floor. The room next to Kara's was the library, beyond that was a dressing room which, according to Fisher, Miss Holland had used, and at the farthermost end of the corridor was the dining room.
Facing the dining room was a small service lift and by its side a storeroom in which were a number of trunks, including a very large one smothered in injunctions in three different languages to "handle with care." There was nothing else of interest on this floor and the upper and lower floors could wait. In a quarter of an hour the carpenter had arrived from Scotland Yard, and had bored a hole in the rosewood panel of Kara's room and was busily applying his slender saw.
Through the hole he cut T. X. could see no more than that the room was in darkness save for the glow of a blazing fire. He inserted his hand, groped for the knob of the steel latch, which he had remarked on his previous visit to the room, lifted it and the door swung open.
"Keep outside, everybody," he ordered.
He felt for the switch of the electric, found it and instantly the room was flooded with light. The bed was hidden by the open door. T. X. took one stride into the room and saw enough. Kara was lying half on and half off the bed. He was quite dead and the blood-stained patch above his heart told its own story.
T. X. stood looking down at him, saw the frozen horror on the dead man's face, then drew his eyes away and slowly surveyed the room. There in the middle of the carpet he found his clue, a bent and twisted little candle such as you find on children's Christmas trees.
It was Mansus who found the second candle, a stouter affair. It lay underneath the bed. The telephone, which stood on a fairly large-sized table by the side of the bed, was overturned and the receiver was on the floor. By its side were two books, one being the "Balkan Question," by Villari, and the other "Travels and Politics in the Near East," by Miller. With them was a long, ivory paper-knife.
There was nothing else on the bedside-table save a silver cigarette box. T. X. drew on a pair of gloves and examined the bright surface for finger-prints, but a superficial view revealed no such clue.
"Open the window," said T. X., "the heat here is intolerable. Be very careful, Mansus. By the way, is the window fastened?"
"Very well fastened," said the superintendent after a careful scrutiny.
He pushed back the fastenings, lifted the window and as he did, a harsh bell rang in the basement.
"That is the burglar alarm, I suppose," said T. X.; "go down and stop that bell."
He addressed Fisher, who stood with a troubled face at the door. When he had disappeared T. X. gave a significant glance to one of the waiting officers and the man sauntered after the valet.
Fisher stopped the bell and came back to the hall and stood before the hall fire, a very troubled man. Near the fire was a big, oaken writing table and on this there lay a small envelope which he did not remember having seen before, though it might have been there for some time, for he had spent a greater portion of the evening in the kitchen with the cook.
He picked up the envelope, and, with a start, recognised that it was addressed to himself. He opened it and took out a card. There were only a few words written upon it, but they were sufficient to banish all the colour from his face and set his hands shaking. He took the envelope and card and flung them into the fire.
It so happened that, at that moment, Mansus had called from upstairs, and the officer, who had been told off to keep the valet under observation, ran up in answer to the summons. For a moment Fisher hesitated, then hatless and coatless as he was, he crept to the door, opened it, leaving it ajar behind him and darting down the steps, ran like a hare from the house.
The doctor, who came a little later, was cautious as to the hour of death.
"If you got your telephone message at 10.25, as you say, that was probably the hour he was killed," he said. "I could not tell within half an hour. Obviously the man who killed him gripped his throat with his left hand—there are the bruises on his neck—and stabbed him with the right."
It was at this time that the disappearance of Fisher was noticed, but the cross-examination of the terrified Mrs. Beale removed any doubt that T. X. had as to the man's guilt.
"You had better send out an 'All Stations' message and pull him in," said T. X. "He was with the cook from the moment the visitor left until a few minutes before we rang. Besides which it is obviously impossible for anybody to have got into this room or out again. Have you searched the dead man?"
Mansus produced a tray on which Kara's belongings had been disposed. The ordinary keys Mrs. Beale was able to identify. There were one or two which were beyond her. T. X. recognised one of these as the key of the safe, but two smaller keys baffled him not a little, and Mrs. Beale was at first unable to assist him.
"The only thing I can think of, sir," she said, "is the wine cellar."
"The wine cellar?" said T. X. slowly. "That must be—" he stopped.
The greater tragedy of the evening, with all its mystifying aspects had not banished from his mind the thought of the girl—that Belinda Mary, who had called upon him in her hour of danger as he divined. Perhaps—he descended into the kitchen and was brought face to face with the unpainted door.
"It looks more like a prison than a wine cellar," he said.
"That's what I've always thought, sir," said Mrs. Beale, "and sometimes I've had a horrible feeling of fear."
He cut short her loquacity by inserting one of the keys in the lock—it did not turn, but he had more success with the second. The lock snapped back easily and he pulled the door back. He found the inner door bolted top and bottom. The bolts slipped back in their well-oiled sockets without any effort. Evidently Kara used this place pretty frequently, thought T. X.
He pushed the door open and stopped with an exclamation of surprise. The cellar apartment was brilliantly lit—but it was unoccupied.
"This beats the band," said T. X.
He saw something on the table and lifted it up. It was a pair of long-bladed scissors and about the handle was wound a handkerchief. It was not this fact which startled him, but that the scissors' blades were dappled with blood and blood, too, was on the handkerchief. He unwound the flimsy piece of cambric and stared at the monogram "B. M. B."
He looked around. Nobody had seen the weapon and he dropped it in his overcoat pocket, and walked from the cellar to the kitchen where Mrs. Beale and Mansus awaited him.
"There is a lower cellar, is there not!" he asked in a strained voice.
"That was bricked up when Mr. Kara took the house," explained the woman.
"There is nothing more to look for here," he said.
He walked slowly up the stairs to the library, his mind in a whirl. That he, an accredited officer of police, sworn to the business of criminal detection, should attempt to screen one who was conceivably a criminal was inexplicable. But if the girl had committed this crime, how had she reached Kara's room and why had she returned to the locked cellar!
He sent for Mrs. Beale to interrogate her. She had heard nothing and she had been in the kitchen all the evening. One fact she did reveal, however, that Fisher had gone from the kitchen and had been absent a quarter of an hour and had returned a little agitated.
"Stay here," said T. X., and went down again to the cellar to make a further search.
"Probably there is some way out of this subterranean jail," he thought and a diligent search of the room soon revealed it.
He found the iron trap, pulled it open, and slipped down the stairs. He, too, was puzzled by the luxurious character of the vault. He passed from room to room and finally came to the inner chamber where a light was burning.
The light, as he discovered, proceeded from a small reading lamp which stood by the side of a small brass bedstead. The bed had recently been slept in, but there was no sign of any occupant. T. X. conducted a very careful search and had no difficulty in finding the bricked up door. Other exits there were none.
The floor was of wood block laid on concrete, the ventilation was excellent and in one of the recesses which had evidently held at so time or other, a large wine bin, there was a prefect electrical cooking plant. In a small larder were a number of baskets, bearing the name of a well-known caterer, one of them containing an excellent assortment of cold and potted meats, preserves, etc.
T. X. went back to the bedroom and took the little lamp from the table by the side of the bed and began a more careful examination. Presently he found traces of blood, and followed an irregular trail to the outer room. He lost it suddenly at the foot of stairs leading down from the upper cellar. Then he struck it again. He had reached the end of his electric cord and was now depending upon an electric torch he had taken from his pocket.
There were indications of something heavy having been dragged across the room and he saw that it led to a small bathroom. He had made a cursory examination of this well-appointed apartment, and now he proceeded to make a close investigation and was well rewarded.
The bathroom was the only apartment which possess anything resembling a door—a two-fold screen and—as he pressed this back, he felt some thing which prevented its wider extension. He slipped into the room and flashed his lamp in the space behind the screen. There stiff in death with glazed eyes and lolling tongue lay a great gaunt dog, his yellow fangs exposed in a last grimace.
About the neck was a collar and attached to that, a few links of broken chain. T. X. mounted the steps thoughtfully and passed out to the kitchen.
Did Belinda Mary stab Kara or kill the dog? That she killed one hound or the other was certain. That she killed both was possible.
After a busy and sleepless night he came down to report to the Chief Commissioner the next morning. The evening newspaper bills were filled with the "Chelsea Sensation" but the information given was of a meagre character.
Since Fisher had disappeared, many of the details which could have been secured by the enterprising pressmen were missing. There was no reference to the visit of Mr. Gathercole and in self-defence the press had fallen back upon a statement, which at an earlier period had crept into the newspapers in one of those chatty paragraphs which begin "I saw my friend Kara at Giros" and end with a brief but inaccurate summary of his hobbies. The paragraph had been to the effect that Mr. Kara had been in fear of his life for some time, as a result of a blood feud which existed between himself and another Albanian family. Small wonder, therefore, the murder was everywhere referred to as "the political crime of the century."
"So far," reported T. X. to his superior, "I have been unable to trace either Gathercole or the valet. The only thing we know about Gathercole is that he sent his article to The Times with his card. The servants of his Club are very vague as to his whereabouts. He is a very eccentric man, who only comes in occasionally, and the steward whom I interviewed says that it frequently happened that Gathercole arrived and departed without anybody being aware of the fact. We have been to his old lodgings in Lincoln's Inn, but apparently he sold up there before he went away to the wilds of Patagonia and relinquished his tenancy.
"The only clue I have is that a man answering to some extent to his description left by the eleven o'clock train for Paris last night."
"You have seen the secretary of course," said the Chief.
It was a question which T. X. had been dreading.
"Gone too," he answered shortly; "in fact she has not been seen since 5:30 yesterday evening."
Sir George leant back in his chair and rumpled his thick grey hair.
"The only person who seems to have remained," he said with heavy sarcasm, "was Kara himself. Would you like me to put somebody else on this case—it isn't exactly your job—or will you carry it on?"
"I prefer to carry it on, sir," said T. X. firmly.
"Have you found out anything more about Kara?"
T. X. nodded.
"All that I have discovered about him is eminently discreditable," he said. "He seems to have had an ambition to occupy a very important position in Albania. To this end he had bribed and subsidized the Turkish and Albanian officials and had a fairly large following in that country. Bartholomew tells me that Kara had already sounded him as to the possibility of the British Government recognising a fait accompli in Albania and had been inducing him to use his influence with the Cabinet to recognize the consequence of any revolution. There is no doubt whatever that Kara has engineered all the political assassinations which have been such a feature in the news from Albania during this past year. We also found in the house very large sums of money and documents which we have handed over to the Foreign Office for decoding."
Sir George thought for a long time.
Then he said, "I have an idea that if you find your secretary you will be half way to solving the mystery."
T. X. went out from the office in anything but a joyous mood. He was on his way to lunch when he remembered his promise to call upon John Lexman.
Could Lexman supply a key which would unravel this tragic tangle? He leant out of his taxi-cab and redirected the driver. It happened that the cab drove up to the door of the Great Midland Hotel as John Lexman was coming out.
"Come and lunch with me," said T. X. "I suppose you've heard all the news."
"I read about Kara being killed, if that's what you mean," said the other. "It was rather a coincidence that I should have been discussing the matter last night at the very moment when his telephone bell rang—I wish to heaven you hadn't been in this," he said fretfully.
"Why?" asked the astonished Assistant Commissioner, "and what do you mean by 'in it'?"
"In the concrete sense I wish you had not been present when I returned," said the other moodily, "I wanted to be finished with the whole sordid business without in any way involving my friends."
"I think you are too sensitive," laughed the other, clapping him on the shoulder. "I want you to unburden yourself to me, my dear chap, and tell me anything you can that will help me to clear up this mystery."
John Lexman looked straight ahead with a worried frown.
"I would do almost anything for you, T. X.," he said quietly, "the more so since I know how good you were to Grace, but I can't help you in this matter. I hated Kara living, I hate him dead," he cried, and there was a passion in his voice which was unmistakable; "he was the vilest thing that ever drew the breath of life. There was no villainy too despicable, no cruelty so horrid but that he gloried in it. If ever the devil were incarnate on earth he took the shape and the form of Remington Kara. He died too merciful a death by all accounts. But if there is a God, this man will suffer for his crimes in hell through all eternity."
T. X. looked at him in astonishment. The hate in the man's face took his breath away. Never before had he experienced or witnessed such a vehemence of loathing.
"What did Kara do to you?" he demanded.
The other looked out of the window.
"I am sorry," he said in a milder tone; "that is my weakness. Some day I will tell you the whole story but for the moment it were better that it were not told. I will tell you this," he turned round and faced the detective squarely, "Kara tortured and killed my wife."
T. X. said no more.
Half way through lunch he returned indirectly to the subject.
"Do you know Gathercole?" he asked.
T. X. nodded.
"I think you asked me that question once before, or perhaps it was somebody else. Yes, I know him, rather an eccentric man with an artificial arm."
"That's the cove," said T. X. with a little sigh; "he's one of the few men I want to meet just now."
"Because he was apparently the last man to see Kara alive."
John Lexman looked at the other with an impatient jerk of his shoulders.
"You don't suspect Gathercole, do you?" he asked.
"Hardly," said the other drily; "in the first place the man that committed this murder had two hands and needed them both. No, I only want to ask that gentleman the subject of his conversation. I also want to know who was in the room with Kara when Gathercole went in."
"H'm," said John Lexman.
"Even if I found who the third person was, I am still puzzled as to how they got out and fastened the heavy latch behind them. Now in the old days, Lexman," he said good humouredly, "you would have made a fine mystery story out of this. How would you have made your man escape?"
Lexman thought for a while.
"Have you examined the safe!" he asked.
"Yes," said the other.
"Was there very much in it?"
T. X. looked at him in astonishment.
"Just the ordinary books and things. Why do you ask?"
"Suppose there were two doors to that safe, one on the outside of the room and one on the inside, would it be possible to pass through the safe and go down the wall?"
"I have thought of that," said T. X.
"Of course," said Lexman, leaning back and toying with a salt-spoon, "in writing a story where one hasn't got to deal with the absolute possibilities, one could always have made Kara have a safe of that character in order to make his escape in the event of danger. He might keep a rope ladder stored inside, open the back door, throw out his ladder to a friend and by some trick arrangement could detach the ladder and allow the door to swing to again."
"A very ingenious idea," said T. X., "but unfortunately it doesn't work in this case. I have seen the makers of the safe and there is nothing very eccentric about it except the fact that it is mounted as it is. Can you offer another suggestion?"
John Lexman thought again.
"I will not suggest trap doors, or secret panels or anything so banal," he said, "nor mysterious springs in the wall which, when touched, reveal secret staircases."
He smiled slightly.
"In my early days, I must confess, I was rather keen upon that sort of thing, but age has brought experience and I have discovered the impossibility of bringing an architect to one's way of thinking even in so commonplace a matter as the position of a scullery. It would be much more difficult to induce him to construct a house with double walls and secret chambers."
T. X. waited patiently.
"There is a possibility, of course," said Lexman slowly, "that the steel latch may have been raised by somebody outside by some ingenious magnetic arrangement and lowered in a similar manner."
"I have thought about it," said T. X. triumphantly, "and I have made the most elaborate tests only this morning. It is quite impossible to raise the steel latch because once it is dropped it cannot be raised again except by means of the knob, the pulling of which releases the catch which holds the bar securely in its place. Try another one, John."
John Lexman threw back his head in a noiseless laugh.
"Why I should be helping you to discover the murderer of Kara is beyond my understanding," he said, "but I will give you another theory, at the same time warning you that I may be putting you off the track. For God knows I have more reason to murder Kara than any man in the world."
He thought a while.
"The chimney was of course impossible?"
"There was a big fire burning in the grate," explained T. X.; "so big indeed that the room was stifling."
John Lexman nodded.
"That was Kara's way," he said; "as a matter of fact I know the suggestion about magnetism in the steel bar was impossible, because I was friendly with Kara when he had that bar put in and pretty well know the mechanism, although I had forgotten it for the moment. What is your own theory, by the way?"
T. X. pursed his lips.
"My theory isn't very clearly formed," he said cautiously, "but so far as it goes, it is that Kara was lying on the bed probably reading one of the books which were found by the bedside when his assailant suddenly came upon him. Kara seized the telephone to call for assistance and was promptly killed."
Again there was silence.
"That is a theory," said John Lexman, with his curious deliberation of speech, "but as I say I refuse to be definite—have you found the weapon?"
T. X. shook his head.
"Were there any peculiar features about the room which astonished you, and which you have not told me?"
T. X. hesitated.
"There were two candles," he said, "one in the middle of the room and one under the bed. That in the middle of the room was a small Christmas candle, the one under the bed was the ordinary candle of commerce evidently roughly cut and probably cut in the room. We found traces of candle chips on the floor and it is evident to me that the portion which was cut off was thrown into the fire, for here again we have a trace of grease."
"Anything further?" he asked.
"The smaller candle was twisted into a sort of corkscrew shape."
"The Clue of the Twisted Candle," mused John Lexman "that's a very good title—Kara hated candles."
Lexman leant back in his chair, selected a cigarette from a silver case.
"In my wanderings," he said, "I have been to many strange places. I have been to the country which you probably do not know, and which the traveller who writes books about countries seldom visits. There are queer little villages perched on the spurs of the bleakest hills you ever saw. I have lived with communities which acknowledge no king and no government. These have their laws handed down to them from father to son—it is a nation without a written language. They administer their laws rigidly and drastically. The punishments they award are cruel—inhuman. I have seen, the woman taken in adultery stoned to death as in the best Biblical traditions, and I have seen the thief blinded."
T. X. shivered.
"I have seen the false witness stand up in a barbaric market place whilst his tongue was torn from him. Sometimes the Turks or the piebald governments of the state sent down a few gendarmes and tried a sort of sporadic administration of the country. It usually ended in the representative of the law lapsing into barbarism, or else disappearing from the face of the earth, with a whole community of murderers eager to testify, with singular unanimity, to the fact that he had either committed suicide or had gone off with the wife of one of the townsmen.
"In some of these communities the candle plays a big part. It is not the candle of commerce as you know it, but a dip made from mutton fat. Strap three between the fingers of your hands and keep the hand rigid with two flat pieces of wood; then let the candles burn down lower and lower—can you imagine? Or set a candle in a gunpowder trail and lead the trail to a well-oiled heap of shavings thoughtfully heaped about your naked feet. Or a candle fixed to the shaved head of a man—there are hundreds of variations and the candle plays a part in all of them. I don't know which Kara had cause to hate the worst, but I know one or two that he has employed."
"Was he as bad as that?" asked T. X.
John Lexman laughed.
"You don't know how bad he was," he said.
Towards the end of the luncheon the waiter brought a note in to T. X. which had been sent on from his office.
"Dear Mr. Meredith,
"In answer to your enquiry I believe my daughter is in London, but I did not know it until this morning. My banker informs me that my daughter called at the bank this morning and drew a considerable sum of money from her private account, but where she has gone and what she is doing with the money I do not know. I need hardly tell you that I am very worried about this matter and I should be glad if you could explain what it is all about."
It was signed "William Bartholomew."
T. X. groaned.
"If I had only had the sense to go to the bank this morning, I should have seen her," he said. "I'm going to lose my job over this."
The other looked troubled.
"You don't seriously mean that."
"Not exactly," smiled T. X., "but I don't think the Chief is very pleased with me just now. You see I have butted into this business without any authority—it isn't exactly in my department. But you have not given me your theory about the candles."
"I have no theory to offer," said the other, folding up his serviette; "the candles suggest a typical Albanian murder. I do not say that it was so, I merely say that by their presence they suggest a crime of this character."
With this T. X. had to be content.
If it were not his business to interest himself in commonplace murder—though this hardly fitted such a description—it was part of the peculiar function which his department exercised to restore to Lady Bartholomew a certain very elaborate snuff-box which he discovered in the safe.
Letters had been found amongst his papers which made clear the part which Kara had played. Though he had not been a vulgar blackmailer he had retained his hold, not only upon this particular property of Lady Bartholomew, but upon certain other articles which were discovered, with no other object, apparently, than to compel influence from quarters likely to be of assistance to him in his schemes.
The inquest on the murdered man which the Assistant Commissioner attended produced nothing in the shape of evidence and the coroner's verdict of "murder against some person or persons unknown" was only to be expected.
T. X. spent a very busy and a very tiring week tracing elusive clues which led him nowhere. He had a letter from John Lexman announcing the fact that he intended leaving for the United States. He had received a very good offer from a firm of magazine publishers in New York and was going out to take up the appointment.
Meredith's plans were now in fair shape. He had decided upon the line of action he would take and in the pursuance of this he interviewed his Chief and the Minister of Justice.
"Yes, I have heard from my daughter," said that great man uncomfortably, "and really she has placed me in a most embarrassing position. I cannot tell you, Mr. Meredith, exactly in what manner she has done this, but I can assure you she has."
"Can I see her letter or telegram?" asked T. X.
"I am afraid that is impossible," said the other solemnly; "she begged me to keep her communication very secret. I have written to my wife and asked her to come home. I feel the constant strain to which I am being subjected is more than human can endure."
"I suppose," said T. X. patiently, "it is impossible for you to tell me to what address you have replied?"
"To no address," answered the other and corrected himself hurriedly; "that is to say I only received the telegram—the message this morning and there is no address—to reply to."
"I see," said T. X.
That afternoon he instructed his secretary.
"I want a copy of all the agony advertisements in to-morrow's papers and in the last editions of the evening papers—have them ready for me tomorrow morning when I come."
They were waiting for him when he reached the office at nine o'clock the next day and he went through them carefully. Presently he found the message he was seeking.
B. M. You place me awkward position. Very thoughtless. Have received package addressed your mother which have placed in mother's sitting-room. Cannot understand why you want me to go away week-end and give servants holiday but have done so. Shall require very full explanation. Matter gone far enough. Father.
"This," said T. X. exultantly, as he read the advertisement, "is where I get busy."
February as a rule is not a month of fogs, but rather a month of tempestuous gales, of frosts and snowfalls, but the night of February 17th, 19—, was one of calm and mist. It was not the typical London fog so dreaded by the foreigner, but one of those little patchy mists which smoke through the streets, now enshrouding and making the nearest object invisible, now clearing away to the finest diaphanous filament of pale grey.
Sir William Bartholomew had a house in Portman Place, which is a wide thoroughfare, filled with solemn edifices of unlovely and forbidding exterior, but remarkably comfortable within. Shortly before eleven on the night of February 17th, a taxi drew up at the junction of Sussex Street and Portman Place, and a girl alighted. The fog at that moment was denser than usual and she hesitated a moment before she left the shelter which the cab afforded.
She gave the driver a few instructions and walked on with a firm step, turning abruptly and mounting the steps of Number 173. Very quickly she inserted her key in the lock, pushed the door open and closed it behind her. She switched on the hall light. The house sounded hollow and deserted, a fact which afforded her considerable satisfaction. She turned the light out and found her way up the broad stairs to the first floor, paused for a moment to switch on another light which she knew would not be observable from the street outside and mounted the second flight.
Miss Belinda Mary Bartholomew congratulated herself upon the success of her scheme, and the only doubt that was in her mind now was whether the boudoir had been locked, but her father was rather careless in such matters and Jacks the butler was one of those dear, silly, old men who never locked anything, and, in consequence, faced every audit with a long face and a longer tale of the peculations of occasional servants.
To her immense relief the handle turned and the door opened to her touch. Somebody had had the sense to pull down the blinds and the curtains were drawn. She switched on the light with a sigh of relief. Her mother's writing table was covered with unopened letters, but she brushed these aside in her search for the little parcel. It was not there and her heart sank. Perhaps she had put it in one of the drawers. She tried them all without result.
She stood by the desk a picture of perplexity, biting a finger thoughtfully.
"Thank goodness!" she said with a jump, for she saw the parcel on the mantel shelf, crossed the room and took it down.
With eager hands she tore off the covering and came to the familiar leather case. Not until she had opened the padded lid and had seen the snuffbox reposing in a bed of cotton wool did she relapse into a long sigh of relief.
"Thank heaven for that," she said aloud.
"And me," said a voice.
She sprang up and turned round with a look of terror.
"Mr.—Mr. Meredith," she stammered.
T. X. stood by the window curtains from whence he had made his dramatic entry upon the scene.
"I say you have to thank me also, Miss Bartholomew," he said presently.
"How do you know my name?" she asked with some curiosity.
"I know everything in the world," he answered, and she smiled. Suddenly her face went serious and she demanded sharply,
"Who sent you after me—Mr. Kara?"
"Mr. Kara?" he repeated, in wonder.
"He threatened to send for the police," she went on rapidly, "and I told him he might do so. I didn't mind the police—it was Kara I was afraid of. You know what I went for, my mother's property."
She held the snuff-box in her outstretched hand.
"He accused me of stealing and was hateful, and then he put me downstairs in that awful cellar and—"
"And?" suggested T. X.
"That's all," she replied with tightened lips; "what are you going to do now?"
"I am going to ask you a few questions if I may," he said. "In the first place have you not heard anything about Mr. Kara since you went away?"
She shook her head.
"I have kept out of his way," she said grimly.
"Have you seen the newspapers?" he asked.
"I have seen the advertisement column—I wired asking Papa to reply to my telegram."
"I know—I saw it," he smiled; "that is what brought me here."
"I was afraid it would," she said ruefully; "father is awfully loquacious in print—he makes speeches you know. All I wanted him to say was yes or no. What do you mean about the newspapers?" she went on. "Is anything wrong with mother?"
He shook his head.
"So far as I know Lady Bartholomew is in the best of health and is on her way home."
"Then what do you mean by asking me about the newspapers!" she demanded; "why should I see the newspapers—what is there for me to see?"
"About Kara?" he suggested.
She shook her head in bewilderment.
"I know and want to know nothing about Kara. Why do you say this to me?"
"Because," said T. X. slowly, "on the night you disappeared from Cadogan Square, Remington Kara was murdered."
"Murdered," she gasped.
"He was stabbed to the heart by some person or persons unknown."
T. X. took his hand from his pocket and pulled something out which was wrapped in tissue paper. This he carefully removed and the girl watched with fascinated gaze, and with an awful sense of apprehension. Presently the object was revealed. It was a pair of scissors with the handle wrapped about with a small handkerchief dappled with brown stains. She took a step backward, raising her hands to her cheeks.
"My scissors," she said huskily; "you won't think—"
She stared up at him, fear and indignation struggling for mastery.
"I don't think you committed the murder," he smiled; "if that's what you mean to ask me, but if anybody else found those scissors and had identified this handkerchief you would have been in rather a fix, my young friend."
She looked at the scissors and shuddered.
"I did kill something," she said in a low voice, "an awful dog... I don't know how I did it, but the beastly thing jumped at me and I just stabbed him and killed him, and I am glad," she nodded many times and repeated, "I am glad."
"So I gather—I found the dog and now perhaps you'll explain why I didn't find you?"
Again she hesitated and he felt that she was hiding something from him.
"I don't know why you didn't find me," she said; "I was there."
"How did you get out?"
"How did you get out?" she challenged him boldly.
"I got out through the door," he confessed; "it seems a ridiculously commonplace way of leaving but that's the only way I could see."
"And that's how I got out," she answered, with a little smile.
"But it was locked."
"I see now," she said; "I was in the cellar. I heard your key in the lock and bolted down the trap, leaving those awful scissors behind. I thought it was Kara with some of his friends and then the voices died away and I ventured to come up and found you had left the door open. So—so I—"
These queer little pauses puzzled T. X. There was something she was not telling him. Something she had yet to reveal.
"So I got away you see," she went on. "I came out into the kitchen; there was nobody there, and I passed through the area door and up the steps and just round the corner I found a taxicab, and that is all."
She spread out her hands in a dramatic little gesture.
"And that is all, is it?" said T. X.
"That is all," she repeated; "now what are you going to do?"
T. X. looked up at the ceiling and stroked his chin.
"I suppose that I ought to arrest you. I feel that something is due from me. May I ask if you were sleeping in the bed downstairs?"
"In the lower cellar?" she demanded,—a little pause and then, "Yes, I was sleeping in the cellar downstairs."
There was that interval of hesitation almost between each word.
"What are you going to do?" she asked again.
She was feeling more sure of herself and had suppressed the panic which his sudden appearance had produced in her. He rumpled his hair, a gross imitation, did she but know it, of one of his chief's mannerisms and she observed that his hair was very thick and inclined to curl. She saw also that he was passably good looking, had fine grey eyes, a straight nose and a most firm chin.
"I think," she suggested gently, "you had better arrest me."
"Don't be silly," he begged.
She stared at him in amazement.
"What did you say?" she asked wrathfully.
"I said 'don't be silly,'" repeated the calm young man.
"Do you know that you're being very rude?" she asked.
He seemed interested and surprised at this novel view of his conduct.
"Of course," she went on carefully smoothing her dress and avoiding his eye, "I know you think I am silly and that I've got a most comic name."
"I have never said your name was comic," he replied coldly; "I would not take so great a liberty."
"You said it was 'weird' which was worse," she claimed.
"I may have said it was 'weird,"' he admitted, "but that's rather different to saying it was 'comic.' There is dignity in weird things. For example, nightmares aren't comic but they're weird."
"Thank you," she said pointedly.
"Not that I mean your name is anything approaching a nightmare." He made this concession with a most magnificent sweep of hand as though he were a king conceding her the right to remain covered in his presence. "I think that Belinda Ann—"
"Belinda Mary," she corrected.
"Belinda Mary, I was going to say, or as a matter of fact," he floundered, "I was going to say Belinda and Mary."
"You were going to say nothing of the kind," she corrected him.
"Anyway, I think Belinda Mary is a very pretty name."
"You think nothing of the sort."
She saw the laughter in his eyes and felt an insane desire to laugh.
"You said it was a weird name and you think it is a weird name, but I really can't be bothered considering everybody's views. I think it's a weird name, too. I was named after an aunt," she added in self-defence.
"There you have the advantage of me," he inclined his head politely; "I was named after my father's favourite dog."
"What does T. X. stand for?" she asked curiously.
"Thomas Xavier," he said, and she leant back in the big chair on the edge of which a few minutes before she had perched herself in trepidation and dissolved into a fit of immoderate laughter.
"It is comic, isn't it?" he asked.
"Oh, I am sorry I'm so rude," she gasped. "Fancy being called Tommy Xavier—I mean Thomas Xavier."
"You may call me Tommy if you wish—most of my friends do."
"Unfortunately I'm not your friend," she said, still smiling and wiping the tears from her eyes, "so I shall go on calling you Mr. Meredith if you don't mind."
She looked at her watch.
"If you are not going to arrest me I'm going," she said.
"I have certainly no intention of arresting you," said he, "but I am going to see you home!"
She jumped up smartly.
"You're not," she commanded.
She was so definite in this that he was startled.
"My dear child," he protested.
"Please don't 'dear child' me," she said seriously; "you're going to be a good little Tommy and let me go home by myself."
She held out her hand frankly and the laughing appeal in her eyes was irresistible.
"Well, I'll see you to a cab," he insisted.
"And listen while I give the driver instructions where he is to take me?"
She shook her head reprovingly.
"It must be an awful thing to be a policeman."
He stood back with folded arms, a stern frown on his face.
"Don't you trust me?" he asked.
"No," she replied.
"Quite right," he approved; "anyway I'll see you to the cab and you can tell the driver to go to Charing Cross station and on your way you can change your direction."
"And you promise you won't follow me?" she asked.
"On my honour," he swore; "on one condition though."
"I will make no conditions," she replied haughtily.
"Please come down from your great big horse," he begged, "and listen to reason. The condition I make is that I can always bring you to an appointed rendezvous whenever I want you. Honestly, this is necessary, Belinda Mary."
"Miss Bartholomew," she corrected, coldly.
"It is necessary," he went on, "as you will understand. Promise me that, if I put an advertisement in the agonies of either an evening paper which I will name or in the Morning Port, you will keep the appointment I fix, if it is humanly possible."
She hesitated a moment, then held out her hand.
"I promise," she said.
"Good for you, Belinda Mary," said he, and tucking her arm in his he led her out of the room switching off the light and racing her down the stairs.
If there was a lot of the schoolgirl left in Belinda Mary Bartholomew, no less of the schoolboy was there in this Commissioner of Police. He would have danced her through the fog, contemptuous of the proprieties, but he wasn't so very anxious to get her to her cab and to lose sight of her.
"Good-night," he said, holding her hand.
"That's the third time you've shaken hands with me to-night," she interjected.
"Don't let us have any unpleasantness at the last," he pleaded, "and remember."
"I have promised," she replied.
"And one day," he went on, "you will tell me all that happened in that cellar."
"I have told you," she said in a low voice.
"You have not told me everything, child."
He handed her into the cab. He shut the door behind her and leant through the open window.
"Victoria or Marble Arch?" he asked politely.
"Charing Cross," she replied, with a little laugh.
He watched the cab drive away and then suddenly it stopped and a figure lent out from the window beckoning him frantically. He ran up to her.
"Suppose I want you," she asked.
"Advertise," he said promptly, "beginning your advertisement 'Dear Tommy."'
"I shall put 'T. X.,'" she said indignantly.
"Then I shall take no notice of your advertisement," he replied and stood in the middle of the street, his hat in his hand, to the intense annoyance of a taxi-cab driver who literally all but ran him down and in a figurative sense did so until T. X. was out of earshot.
Thomas Xavier Meredith was a shrewd young man. It was said of him by Signor Paulo Coselli, the eminent criminologist, that he had a gift of intuition which was abnormal. Probably the mystery of the twisted candle was solved by him long before any other person in the world had the dimmest idea that it was capable of solution.
The house in Cadogan Square was still in the hands of the police. To this house and particularly to Kara's bedroom T. X. from time to time repaired, and reproduced as far as possible the conditions which obtained on the night of the murder. He had the same stifling fire, the same locked door. The latch was dropped in its socket, whilst T. X., with a stop watch in his hand, made elaborate calculations and acted certain parts which he did not reveal to a soul.
Three times, accompanied by Mansus, he went to the house, three times went to the death chamber and was alone on one occasion for an hour and a half whilst the patient Mansus waited outside. Three times he emerged looking graver on each occasion, and after the third visit he called into consultation John Lexman.
Lexman had been spending some time in the country, having deferred his trip to the United States.
"This case puzzles me more and more, John," said T. X., troubled out of his usual boisterous self, "and thank heaven it worries other people besides me. De Mainau came over from France the other day and brought all his best sleuths, whilst O'Grady of the New York central office paid a flying visit just to get hold of the facts. Not one of them has given me the real solution, though they've all been rather ingenious. Gathercole has vanished and is probably on his way to some undiscoverable region, and our people have not yet traced the valet."
"He should be the easiest for you," said John Lexman, reflectively.
"Why Gathercole should go off I can't understand," T. X. continued. "According to the story which was told me by Fisher, his last words to Kara were to the effect that he was expecting a cheque or that he had received a cheque. No cheque has been presented or drawn and apparently Gathercole has gone off without waiting for any payment. An examination of Kara's books show nothing against the Gathercole account save the sum of 600 pounds which was originally advanced, and now to upset all my calculations, look at this."
He took from his pocketbook a newspaper cutting and pushed it across the table, for they were dining together at the Carlton. John Lexman picked up the slip and read. It was evidently from a New York paper:
"Further news has now come to hand by the Antarctic Trading Company's steamer, Cyprus, concerning the wreck of the City of the Argentine. It is believed that this ill-fated vessel, which called at South American ports, lost her propellor and drifted south out of the track of shipping. This theory is now confirmed. Apparently the ship struck an iceberg on December 23rd and foundered with all aboard save a few men who were able to launch a boat and who were picked up by the Cyprus. The following is the passenger list."
John Lexman ran down the list until he came upon the name which was evidently underlined in ink by T. X. That name was George Gathercole and after it in brackets (Explorer).
"If that were true, then, Gathercole could not have come to London."
"He may have taken another boat," said T. X., "and I cabled to the Steamship Company without any great success. Apparently Gathercole was an eccentric sort of man and lived in terror of being overcrowded. It was a habit of his to make provisional bookings by every available steamer. The company can tell me no more than that he had booked, but whether he shipped on the City of the Argentine or not, they do not know."
"I can tell you this about Gathercole," said John slowly and thoughtfully, "that he was a man who would not hurt a fly. He was incapable of killing any man, being constitutionally averse to taking life in any shape. For this reason he never made collections of butterflies or of bees, and I believe has never shot an animal in his life. He carried his principles to such an extent that he was a vegetarian—poor old Gathercole!" he said, with the first smile which T. X. had seen on his face since he came back.
"If you want to sympathize with anybody," said T. X. gloomily, "sympathize with me."
On the following day T. X. was summoned to the Home Office and went steeled for a most unholy row. The Home Secretary, a large and worthy gentleman, given to the making of speeches on every excuse, received him, however, with unusual kindness.
"I've sent for you, Mr. Meredith," he said, "about this unfortunate Greek. I've had all his private papers looked into and translated and in some cases decoded, because as you are probably aware his diaries and a great deal of his correspondence were in a code which called for the attention of experts."
T. X. had not troubled himself greatly about Kara's private papers but had handed them over, in accordance with instructions, to the proper authorities.
"Of course, Mr. Meredith," the Home Secretary went on, beaming across his big table, "we expect you to continue your search for the murderer, but I must confess that your prisoner when you secure him will have a very excellent case to put to a jury."
"That I can well believe, sir," said T. X.
"Seldom in my long career at the bar," began the Home Secretary in his best oratorical manner, "have I examined a record so utterly discreditable as that of the deceased man."
Here he advanced a few instances which surprised even T. X.
"The men was a lunatic," continued the Home Secretary, "a vicious, evil man who loved cruelty for cruelty's sake. We have in this diary alone sufficient evidence to convict him of three separate murders, one of which was committed in this country."
T. X. looked his astonishment.
"You will remember, Mr. Meredith, as I saw in one of your reports, that he had a chauffeur, a Greek named Poropulos."
T. X. nodded.
"He went to Greece on the day following the shooting of Vassalaro," he said.
The Home Secretary shook his head.
"He was killed on the same night," said the Minister, "and you will have no difficulty in finding what remains of his body in the disused house which Kara rented for his own purpose on the Portsmouth Road. That he has killed a number of people in Albania you may well suppose. Whole villages have been wiped out to provide him with a little excitement. The man was a Nero without any of Nero's amiable weaknesses. He was obsessed with the idea that he himself was in danger of assassination, and saw an enemy even in his trusty servant. Undoubtedly the chauffeur Poropulos was in touch with several Continental government circles. You understand," said the Minister in conclusion, "that I am telling you this, not with the idea of expecting you, to relax your efforts to find the murderer and clear up the mystery, but in order that you may know something of the possible motive for this man's murder."
T. X. spent an hour going over the decoded diary and documents and left the Home Office a little shakily. It was inconceivable, incredible. Kara was a lunatic, but the directing genius was a devil.
T. X. had a flat in Whitehall Gardens and thither he repaired to change for dinner. He was half dressed when the evening paper arrived and he glanced as was his wont first at the news' page and then at the advertisement column. He looked down the column marked "Personal" without expecting to find anything of particular interest to himself, but saw that which made him drop the paper and fly round the room in a frenzy to complete his toilet.
"Tommy X.," ran the brief announcement, "most urgent, Marble Arch 8."
He had five minutes to get there but it seemed like five hours. He was held up at almost every crossing and though he might have used his authority to obtain right of way, it was a step which his curious sense of honesty prevented him taking. He leapt out of the cab before it stopped, thrust the fare into the driver's hands and looked round for the girl. He saw her at last and walked quickly towards her. As he approached her, she turned about and with an almost imperceptible beckoning gesture walked away. He followed her along the Bayswater Road and gradually drew level.
"I am afraid I have been watched," she said in a low voice. "Will you call a cab?"
He hailed a passing taxi, helped her in and gave at random the first place that suggested itself to him, which was Finsbury Park.
"I am very worried," she said, "and I don't know anybody who can help me except you."
"Is it money?" he asked.
"Money," she said scornfully, "of course it isn't money. I want to show you a letter," she said after a while.
She took it from her bag and gave it to him and he struck a match and read it with difficulty.
It was written in a studiously uneducated hand.
"I know who you are. You are wanted by the police but I will not give you away. Dear Miss. I am very hard up and 20 pounds will be very useful to me and I shall not trouble you again. Dear Miss. Put the money on the window sill of your room. I know you sleep on the ground floor and I will come in and take it. And if not—well, I don't want to make any trouble.
"When did you get this?" he asked.
"This morning," she replied. "I sent the Agony to the paper by telegram, I knew you would come."
"Oh, you did, did you?" he said.
Her assurance was very pleasing to him. The faith that her words implied gave him an odd little feeling of comfort and happiness.
"I can easily get you out of this," he added; "give me your address and when the gentleman comes—"
"That is impossible," she replied hurriedly. "Please don't think I'm ungrateful, and don't think I'm being silly—you do think I'm being silly, don't you!"
"I have never harboured such an unworthy thought," he said virtuously.
"Yes, you have," she persisted, "but really I can't tell you where I am living. I have a very special reason for not doing so. It's not myself that I'm thinking about, but there's a life involved."
This was a somewhat dramatic statement to make and she felt she had gone too far.
"Perhaps I don't mean that," she said, "but there is some one I care for—" she dropped her voice.
"Oh," said T. X. blankly.
He came down from his rosy heights into the shadow and darkness of a sunless valley.
"Some one you care for," he repeated after a while.
There was another long silence, then,
"Oh, indeed," said T. X.
Again the unbroken interval of quiet and after a while she said in a low voice, "Not that way."
"Not what way!" asked T. X. huskily, his spirits doing a little mountaineering.
"The way you mean," she said.
"Oh," said T. X.
He was back again amidst the rosy snows of dawn, was in fact climbing a dizzy escalier on the topmost height of hope's Mont Blanc when she pulled the ladder from under him.
"I shall, of course, never marry," she said with a certain prim decision.
T. X. fell with a dull sickening thud, discovering that his rosy snows were not unlike cold, hard ice in their lack of resilience.
"Who said you would?" he asked somewhat feebly, but in self defence.
"You did," she said, and her audacity took his breath away.
"Well, how am I to help you!" he asked after a while.
"By giving me some advice," she said; "do you think I ought to put the money there!"
"Indeed I do not," said T. X., recovering some of his natural dominance; "apart from the fact that you would be compounding a felony, you would merely be laying out trouble for yourself in the future. If he can get 20 pounds so easily, he will come for 40 pounds. But why do you stay away, why don't you return home? There's no charge and no breath of suspicion against you."
"Because I have something to do which I have set my mind to," she said, with determination in her tones.
"Surely you can trust me with your address," he urged her, "after all that has passed between us, Belinda Mary—after all the years we have known one another."
"I shall get out and leave you," she said steadily.
"But how the dickens am I going to help you?" he protested.
"Don't swear," she could be very severe indeed; "the only way you can help me is by being kind and sympathetic."
"Would you like me to burst into tears?" he asked sarcastically.
"I ask you to do nothing more painful or repugnant to your natural feelings than to be a gentleman," she said.
"Thank you very kindly," said T. X., and leant back in the cab with an air of supreme resignation.
"I believe you're making faces in the dark," she accused him.
"God forbid that I should do anything so low," said he hastily; "what made you think that?"
"Because I was putting my tongue out at you," she admitted, and the taxi driver heard the shrieks of laughter in the cab behind him above the wheezing of his asthmatic engine.
At twelve that night in a certain suburb of London an overcoated man moved stealthily through a garden. He felt his way carefully along the wall of the house and groped with hope, but with no great certainty, along the window sill. He found an envelope which his fingers, somewhat sensitive from long employment in nefarious uses, told him contained nothing more substantial than a letter.
He went back through the garden and rejoined his companion, who was waiting under an adjacent lamp-post.
"Did she drop?" asked the other eagerly.
"I don't know yet," growled the man from the garden.
He opened the envelope and read the few lines.
"She hasn't got the money," he said, "but she's going to get it. I must meet her to-morrow afternoon at the corner of Oxford Street and Regent Street."
"What time!" asked the other.
"Six o'clock," said the first man. "The chap who takes the money must carry a copy of the Westminster Gazette in his hand."
"Oh, then it's a plant," said the other with conviction.
The other laughed.
"She won't work any plants. I bet she's scared out of her life."
The second man bit his nails and looked up and down the road, apprehensively.
"It's come to something," he said bitterly; "we went out to make our thousands and we've come down to 'chanting' for 20 pounds."
"It's the luck," said the other philosophically, "and I haven't done with her by any means. Besides we've still got a chance of pulling of the big thing, Harry. I reckon she's good for a hundred or two, anyway."
At six o'clock on the following afternoon, a man dressed in a dark overcoat, with a soft felt hat pulled down over his eyes stood nonchalantly by the curb near where the buses stop at Regent Street slapping his hand gently with a folded copy of the Westminster Gazette.
That none should mistake his Liberal reading, he stood as near as possible to a street lamp and so arranged himself and his attitude that the minimum of light should fall upon his face and the maximum upon that respectable organ of public opinion. Soon after six he saw the girl approaching, out of the tail of his eye, and strolled off to meet her. To his surprise she passed him by and he was turning to follow when an unfriendly hand gripped him by the arm.
"Mr. Fisher, I believe," said a pleasant voice.
"What do you mean?" said the man, struggling backward.
"Are you going quietly!" asked the pleasant Superintendent Mansus, "or shall I take my stick to you'?"
Mr. Fisher thought awhile.
"It's a cop," he confessed, and allowed himself to be hustled into the waiting cab.
He made his appearance in T. X.'s office and that urbane gentleman greeted him as a friend.
"And how's Mr. Fisher!" he asked; "I suppose you are Mr. Fisher still and not Mr. Harry Gilcott, or Mr. George Porten."
Fisher smiled his old, deferential, deprecating smile.
"You will always have your joke, sir. I suppose the young lady gave me away."
"You gave yourself away, my poor Fisher," said T. X., and put a strip of paper before him; "you may disguise your hand, and in your extreme modesty pretend to an ignorance of the British language, which is not creditable to your many attainments, but what you must be awfully careful in doing in future when you write such epistles," he said, "is to wash your hands."
"Wash my hands!" repeated the puzzled Fisher.
T. X. nodded.
"You see you left a little thumb print, and we are rather whales on thumb prints at Scotland Yard, Fisher."
"I see. What is the charge now, sir!"
"I shall make no charge against you except the conventional one of being a convict under license and failing to report."
Fisher heaved a sigh.
"That'll only mean twelve months. Are you going to charge me with this business?" he nodded to the paper.
T. X. shook his head.
"I bear you no ill-will although you tried to frighten Miss Bartholomew. Oh yes, I know it is Miss Bartholomew, and have known all the time. The lady is there for a reason which is no business of yours or of mine. I shall not charge you with attempt to blackmail and in reward for my leniency I hope you are going to tell me all you know about the Kara murder. You wouldn't like me to charge you with that, would you by any chance!"
Fisher drew a long breath.
"No, sir, but if you did I could prove my innocence," he said earnestly. "I spent the whole of the evening in the kitchen."
"Except a quarter of an hour," said T. X.
The man nodded.
"That's true, sir, I went out to see a pal of mine."
"The man who is in this!" asked T. X.
"Yes, sir. He was with me in this but there was nothing wrong about the business—as far as we went. I don't mind admitting that I was planning a Big Thing. I'm not going to blow on it, if it's going to get me into trouble, but if you'll promise me that it won't, I'll tell you the whole story."
"Against whom was this coup of yours planned?"
"Against Mr. Kara, sir," said Fisher.
"Go on with your story," nodded T. X.
The story was a short and commonplace one. Fisher had met a man who knew another man who was either a Turk or an Albanian. They had learnt that Kara was in the habit of keeping large sums of money in the house and they had planned to rob him. That was the story in a nutshell. Somewhere the plan miscarried. It was when he came to the incidents that occurred on the night of the murder that T. X. followed him with the greatest interest.
"The old gentleman came in," said Fisher, "and I saw him up to the room. I heard him coming out and I went up and spoke to him while he was having a chat with Mr. Kara at the open door."
"Did you hear Mr. Kara speak?"
"I fancy I did, sir," said Fisher; "anyway the old gentleman was quite pleased with himself."
"Why do you say 'old gentleman'!" asked T. X.; "he was not an old man."
"Not exactly, sir," said Fisher, "but he had a sort of fussy irritable way that old gentlemen sometimes have and I somehow got it fixed in my mind that he was old. As a matter of fact, he was about forty-five, he may have been fifty."
"You have told me all this before. Was there anything peculiar about him!"
"Nothing, sir, except the fact that one of his arms was a game one."
"Meaning that it was—"
"Meaning that it was an artificial one, sir, so far as I can make out."
"Was it his right or his left arm that was game!" interrupted T. X.
"His left arm, sir."
"I'd swear to it, sir."
"Very well, go on."
"He came downstairs and went out and I never saw him again. When you came and the murder was discovered and knowing as I did that I had my own scheme on and that one of your splits might pinch me, I got a bit rattled. I went downstairs to the hall and the first thing I saw lying on the table was a letter. It was addressed to me."
He paused and T. X. nodded.
"Go on," he said again.
"I couldn't understand how it came to be there, but as I'd been in the kitchen most of the evening except when I was seeing my pal outside to tell him the job was off for that night, it might have been there before you came. I opened the letter. There were only a few words on it and I can tell you those few words made my heart jump up into my mouth, and made me go cold all over."
"What were they!" asked T. X.
"I shall not forget them, sir. They're sort of permanently fixed in my brain," said the man earnestly; "the note started with just the figures 'A. C. 274.'"
"What was that!" asked T. X.
"My convict number when I was in Dartmoor Prison, sir."
"What did the note say?"
"'Get out of here quick'—I don't know who had put it there, but I'd evidently been spotted and I was taking no chances. That's the whole story from beginning to end. I accidentally happened to meet the young lady, Miss Holland—Miss Bartholomew as she is—and followed her to her house in Portman Place. That was the night you were there."
T. X. found himself to his intense annoyance going very red.
"And you know no more?" he asked.
"No more, sir—and if I may be struck dead—"
"Keep all that sabbath talk for the chaplain," commended T. X., and they took away Mr. Fisher, not an especially dissatisfied man.
That night T. X. interviewed his prisoner at Cannon Row police station and made a few more enquiries.
"There is one thing I would like to ask you," said the girl when he met her next morning in Green Park.
"If you were going to ask whether I made enquiries as to where your habitation was," he warned her, "I beg of you to refrain."
She was looking very beautiful that morning, he thought. The keen air had brought a colour to her face and lent a spring to her gait, and, as she strode along by his side with the free and careless swing of youth, she was an epitome of the life which even now was budding on every tree in the park.
"Your father is back in town, by the way," he said, "and he is most anxious to see you."
She made a little grimace.
"I hope you haven't been round talking to father about me."
"Of course I have," he said helplessly; "I have also had all the reporters up from Fleet Street and given them a full description of your escapades."
She looked round at him with laughter in her eyes.
"You have all the manners of an early Christian martyr," she said. "Poor soul! Would you like to be thrown to the lions?"
"I should prefer being thrown to the demnition ducks and drakes," he said moodily.
"You're such a miserable man," she chided him, "and yet you have everything to make life worth living."
"Ha, ha!" said T. X.
"You have, of course you have! You have a splendid position. Everybody looks up to you and talks about you. You have got a wife and family who adore you—"
He stopped and looked at her as though she were some strange insect.
"I have a how much?" he asked credulously.
"Aren't you married?" she asked innocently.
He made a strange noise in his throat.
"Do you know I have always thought of you as married," she went on; "I often picture you in your domestic circle reading to the children from the Daily Megaphone those awfully interesting stories about Little Willie Waterbug."
He held on to the railings for support.
"May we sit down?" he asked faintly.
She sat by his side, half turned to him, demure and wholly adorable.
"Of course you are right in one respect," he said at last, "but you're altogether wrong about the children."
"Are you married!" she demanded with no evidence of amusement.
"Didn't you know?" he asked.
She swallowed something.
"Of course it's no business of mine and I'm sure I hope you are very happy."
"Perfectly happy," said T. X. complacently. "You must come out and see me one Saturday afternoon when I am digging the potatoes. I am a perfect devil when they let me loose in the vegetable garden."
"Shall we go on?" she said.
He could have sworn there were tears in her eyes and manlike he thought she was vexed with him at his fooling.
"I haven't made you cross, have I?" he asked.
"Oh no," she replied.
"I mean you don't believe all this rot about my being married and that sort of thing?"
"I'm not interested," she said, with a shrug of her shoulders, "not very much. You've been very kind to me and I should be an awful boor if I wasn't grateful. Of course, I don't care whether you're married or not, it's nothing to do with me, is it?"
"Naturally it isn't," he replied. "I suppose you aren't married by any chance?"
"Married," she repeated bitterly; "why, you will make my fourth!"
She had hardy got the words out of her mouth before she realized her terrible error. A second later she was in his arms and he was kissing her to the scandal of one aged park keeper, one small and dirty-faced little boy and a moulting duck who seemed to sneer at the proceedings which he watched through a yellow and malignant eye.
"Belinda Mary," said T. X. at parting, "you have got to give up your little country establishment, wherever it may be and come back to the discomforts of Portman Place. Oh, I know you can't come back yet. That 'somebody' is there, and I can pretty well guess who it is."
"Who?" she challenged.
"I rather fancy your mother has come back," he suggested.
A look of scorn dawned into her pretty face.
"Good lord, Tommy!" she said in disgust, "you don't think I should keep mother in the suburbs without her telling the world all about it!"
"You're an undutiful little beggar," he said.
They had reached the Horse Guards at Whitehall and he was saying good-bye to her.
"If it comes to a matter of duty," she answered, "perhaps you will do your duty and hold up the traffic for me and let me cross this road."
"My dear girl," he protested, "hold up the traffic?"
"Of course," she said indignantly, "you're a policeman."
"Only when I am in uniform," he said hastily, and piloted her across the road.
It was a new man who returned to the gloomy office in Whitehall. A man with a heart that swelled and throbbed with the pride and joy of life's most precious possession.
T. X. sat at his desk, his chin in his hands, his mind remarkably busy. Grave as the matter was which he was considering, he rose with alacrity to meet the smiling girl who was ushered through the door by Mansus, preternaturally solemn and mysterious.
She was radiant that day. Her eyes were sparkling with an unusual brightness.
"I've got the most wonderful thing to tell you," she said, "and I can't tell you."
"That's a very good beginning," said T. X., taking her muff from her hand.
"Oh, but it's really wonderful," she cried eagerly, "more wonderful than anything you have ever heard about."
"We are interested," said T. X. blandly.
"No, no, you mustn't make fun," she begged, "I can't tell you now, but it is something that will make you simply—" she was at a loss for a simile.
"Jump out of my skin?" suggested T. X.
"I shall astonish you," she nodded her head solemnly.
"I take a lot of astonishing, I warn you," he smiled; "to know you is to exhaust one's capacity for surprise."
"That can be either very, very nice or very, very nasty," she said cautiously.
"But accept it as being very, very nice," he laughed. "Now come, out with this tale of yours."
She shook her head very vigorously.
"I can't possibly tell you anything," she said.
"Then why the dickens do you begin telling anything for?" he complained, not without reason.
"Because I just want you to know that I do know something."
"Oh, Lord!" he groaned. "Of course you know everything. Belinda Mary, you're really the most wonderful child."
He sat on the edge of her arm-chair and laid his hand on her shoulder.
"And you've come to take me out to lunch!"
"What were you worrying about when I came in?" she asked.
He made a little gesture as if to dismiss the subject.
"Nothing very much. You've heard me speak of John Lexman?"
She bent her head.
"Lexman's the writer of a great many mystery stories, but you've probably read his books."
She nodded again, and again T. X. noticed the suppressed eagerness in her eyes.
"You're not ill or sickening for anything, are you?" he asked anxiously; "measles, or mumps or something?"
"Don't be silly," she said; "go on and tell me something about Mr. Lexman."
"He's going to America," said T. X., "and before he goes he wants to give a little lecture."
"It sounds rum, doesn't it, but that's just what he wants to do."
"Why is he doing it!" she asked.
T. X. made a gesture of despair.
"That is one of the mysteries which may never be revealed to me, except—" he pursed his lips and looked thoughtfully at the girl. "There are times," he said, "when there is a great struggle going on inside a man between all the human and better part of him and the baser professional part of him. One side of me wants to hear this lecture of John Lexman's very much, the other shrinks from the ordeal."
"Let us talk it over at lunch," she said practically, and carried him off.
One would not readily associate the party of top-booted sewermen who descend nightly to the subterranean passages of London with the stout viceconsul at Durazzo. Yet it was one unimaginative man who lived in Lambeth and had no knowledge that there was such a place as Durazzo who was responsible for bringing this comfortable official out of his bed in the early hours of the morning causing him—albeit reluctantly and with violent and insubordinate language—to conduct certain investigations in the crowded bazaars.
At first he was unsuccessful because there were many Hussein Effendis in Durazzo. He sent an invitation to the American Consul to come over to tiffin and help him.
"Why the dickens the Foreign Office should suddenly be interested in Hussein Effendi, I cannot for the life of me understand."
"The Foreign Department has to be interested in something, you know," said the genial American. "I receive some of the quaintest requests from Washington; I rather fancy they only wire you to find if they are there."
"Why are you doing this!"
"I've seen Hakaat Bey," said the English official. "I wonder what this fellow has been doing? There is probably a wigging for me in the offing."
At about the same time the sewerman in the bosom of his own family was taking loud and noisy sips from a big mug of tea.
"Don't you be surprised," he said to his admiring better half, "if I have to go up to the Old Bailey to give evidence."
"Lord! Joe!" she said with interest, "what has happened!"
The sewer man filled his pipe and told the story with a wealth of rambling detail. He gave particulars of the hour he had descended the Victoria Street shaft, of what Bill Morgan had said to him as they were going down, of what he had said to Harry Carter as they splashed along the low-roofed tunnel, of how he had a funny feeling that he was going to make a discovery, and so on and so forth until he reached his long delayed climax.
T. X. waited up very late that night and at twelve o'clock his patience was rewarded, for the Foreign Office' messenger brought a telegram to him. It was addressed to the Chief Secretary and ran:
"No. 847. Yours 63952 of yesterday's date. Begins. Hussein Effendi a prosperous merchant of this city left for Italy to place his daughter in convent Marie Theressa, Florence Hussein being Christian. He goes on to Paris. Apply Ralli Theokritis et Cie., Rue de l'Opera. Ends."
Half an hour later T. X. had a telephone connection through to Paris and was instructing the British police agent in that city. He received a further telephone report from Paris the next morning and one which gave him infinite satisfaction. Very slowly but surely he was gathering together the pieces of this baffling mystery and was fitting them together. Hussein Effendi would probably supply the last missing segments.
At eight o'clock that night the door opened and the man who represented T. X. in Paris came in carrying a travelling ulster on his arm. T. X. gave him a nod and then, as the newcomer stood with the door open, obviously waiting for somebody to follow him, he said,
"Show him in—I will see him alone."
There walked into his office, a tall man wearing a frock coat and a red fez. He was a man from fifty-five to sixty, powerfully built, with a grave dark face and a thin fringe of white beard. He salaamed as he entered.
"You speak French, I believe," said T. X. presently.
The other bowed.
"My agent has explained to you," said T. X. in French, "that I desire some information for the purpose of clearing up a crime which has been committed in this country. I have given you my assurance, if that assurance was necessary, that you would come to no harm as a result of anything you might tell me."
"That I understand, Effendi," said the tall Turk; "the Americans and the English have always been good friends of mine and I have been frequently in London. Therefore, I shall be very pleased to be of any help to you."
T. X. walked to a closed bookcase on one side of the room, unlocked it, took out an object wrapped in white tissue paper. He laid this on the table, the Turk watching the proceedings with an impassive face. Very slowly the Commissioner unrolled the little bundle and revealed at last a long, slim knife, rusted and stained, with a hilt, which in its untarnished days had evidently been of chased silver. He lifted the dagger from the table and handed it to the Turk.
"This is yours, I believe," he said softly.
The man turned it over, stepping nearer the table that he might secure the advantage of a better light. He examined the blade near the hilt and handed the weapon back to T. X.
"That is my knife," he said.
T. X. smiled.
"You understand, of course, that I saw 'Hussein Effendi of Durazzo' inscribed in Arabic near the hilt."
The Turk inclined his head.
"With this weapon," T. X. went on, speaking with slow emphasis, "a murder was committed in this town."
There was no sign of interest or astonishment, or indeed of any emotion whatever.
"It is the will of God," he said calmly; "these things happen even in a great city like London."
"It was your knife," suggested T. X.
"But my hand was in Durazzo, Effendi," said the Turk.
He looked at the knife again.
"So the Black Roman is dead, Effendi."
"The Black Roman?" asked T. X., a little puzzled.
"The Greek they call Kara," said the Turk; "he was a very wicked man."
T. X. was up on his feet now, leaning across the table and looking at the other with narrowed eyes.
"How did you know it was Kara?" he asked quickly.
The Turk shrugged his shoulders.
"Who else could it be?" he said; "are not your newspapers filled with the story?"
T. X. sat back again, disappointed and a little annoyed with himself.
"That is true, Hussein Effendi, but I did not think you read the papers."
"Neither do I, master," replied the other coolly, "nor did I know that Kara had been killed until I saw this knife. How came this in your possession!"
"It was found in a rain sewer," said T. X., "into which the murderer had apparently dropped it. But if you have not read the newspapers, Effendi, then you admit that you know who committed this murder."
The Turk raised his hands slowly to a level with his shoulders.
"Though I am a Christian," he said, "there are many wise sayings of my father's religion which I remember. And one of these, Effendi, was, 'the wicked must die in the habitations of the just, by the weapons of the worthy shall the wicked perish.' Your Excellency, I am a worthy man, for never have I done a dishonest thing in my life. I have traded fairly with Greeks, with Italians, have with Frenchmen and with Englishmen, also with Jews. I have never sought to rob them nor to hurt them. If I have killed men, God knows it was not because I desired their death, but because their lives were dangerous to me and to mine. Ask the blade all your questions and see what answer it gives. Until it speaks I am as dumb as the blade, for it is also written that 'the soldier is the servant of his sword,' and also, 'the wise servant is dumb about his master's affairs.'"
T. X. laughed helplessly.
"I had hoped that you might be able to help me, hoped and feared," he said; "if you cannot speak it is not my business to force you either by threat or by act. I am grateful to you for having come over, although the visit has been rather fruitless so far as I am concerned."
He smiled again and offered his hand.
"Excellency," said the old Turk soberly, "there are some things in life that are well left alone and there are moments when justice should be so blind that she does not see guilt; here is such a moment."
And this ended the interview, one on which T. X. had set very high hopes. His gloom carried to Portman Place, where he had arranged to meet Belinda Mary.
"Where is Mr. Lexman going to give this famous lecture of his?" was the question with which she greeted him, "and, please, what is the subject?"
"It is on a subject which is of supreme interest to me;" he said gravely; "he has called his lecture 'The Clue of the Twisted Candle.' There is no clearer brain being employed in the business of criminal detection than John Lexman's. Though he uses his genius for the construction of stories, were it employed in the legitimate business of police work, I am certain he would make a mark second to none in the world. He is determined on giving this lecture and he has issued a number of invitations. These include the Chiefs of the Secret Police of nearly all the civilized countries of the world. O'Grady is on his way from America, he wirelessed me this morning to that effect. Even the Chief of the Russian police has accepted the invitation, because, as you know, this murder has excited a great deal of interest in police circles everywhere. John Lexman is not only going to deliver this lecture," he said slowly, "but he is going to tell us who committed the murder and how it was committed."
She thought a moment.
"Where will it be delivered!"
"I don't know," he said in astonishment; "does that matter?"
"It matters a great deal," she said emphatically, "especially if I want it delivered in a certain place. Would you induce Mr. Lexman to lecture at my house?"
"At Portman Place!" he asked.
She shook her head.
"No, I have a house of my own. A furnished house I have rented at Blackheath. Will you induce Mr. Lexman to give the lecture there?"
"But why?" he asked.
"Please don't ask questions," she pleaded, "do this for me, Tommy."
He saw she was in earnest.
"I'll write to old Lexman this afternoon," he promised.
John Lexman telephoned his reply.
"I should prefer somewhere out of London," he said, "and since Miss Bartholomew has some interest in the matter, may I extend my invitation to her? I promise she shall not be any more shocked than a good woman need be."
And so it came about that the name of Belinda Mary Bartholomew was added to the selected list of police chiefs, who were making for London at that moment to hear from the man who had guaranteed the solution of the story of Kara and his killing; the unravelment of the mystery which surrounded his death, and the significance of the twisted candles, which at that moment were reposing in the Black Museum at Scotland Yard.
The room was a big one and most of the furniture had been cleared out to admit the guests who had come from the ends of the earth to learn the story of the twisted candles, and to test John Lexman's theory by their own.
They sat around chatting cheerfully of men and crimes, of great coups planned and frustrated, of strange deeds committed and undetected. Scraps of their conversation came to Belinda Mary as she stood in the chintz-draped doorway which led from the drawing-room to the room she used as a study.
"... do you remember, Sir George, the Bolbrook case! I took the man at Odessa...."
"... the curious thing was that I found no money on the body, only a small gold charm set with a single emerald, so I knew it was the girl with the fur bonnet who had..."