"... Pinot got away after putting three bullets into me, but I dragged myself to the window and shot him dead—it was a real good shot...!"
They rose to meet her and T. X. introduced her to the men. It was at that moment that John Lexman was announced.
He looked tired, but returned the Commissioner's greeting with a cheerful mien. He knew all the men present by name, as they knew him. He had a few sheets of notes, which he laid on the little table which had been placed for him, and when the introductions were finished he went to this and with scarcely any preliminary began.
THE NARRATIVE OF JOHN LEXMAN
"I am, as you may all know, a writer of stories which depend for their success upon the creation and unravelment of criminological mysteries. The Chief Commissioner has been good enough to tell you that my stories were something more than a mere seeking after sensation, and that I endeavoured in the course of those narratives to propound obscure but possible situations, and, with the ingenuity that I could command, to offer to those problems a solution acceptable, not only to the general reader, but to the police expert.
"Although I did not regard my earlier work with any great seriousness and indeed only sought after exciting situations and incidents, I can see now, looking back, that underneath the work which seemed at the time purposeless, there was something very much like a scheme of studies.
"You must forgive this egotism in me because it is necessary that I should make this explanation and you, who are in the main police officers of considerable experience and discernment, should appreciate the fact that as I was able to get inside the minds of the fictitious criminals I portrayed, so am I now able to follow the mind of the man who committed this murder, or if not to follow his mind, to recreate the psychology of the slayer of Remington Kara.
"In the possession of most of you are the vital facts concerning this man. You know the type of man he was, you have instances of his terrible ruthlessness, you know that he was a blot upon God's earth, a vicious wicked ego, seeking the gratification of that strange blood-lust and pain-lust, which is to be found in so few criminals."
John Lexman went on to describe the killing of Vassalaro.
"I know now how that occurred," he said. "I had received on the previous Christmas eve amongst other presents, a pistol from an unknown admirer. That unknown admirer was Kara, who had planned this murder some three months ahead. He it was, who sent me the Browning, knowing as he did that I had never used such a weapon and that therefore I would be chary about using it. I might have put the pistol away in a cupboard out of reach and the whole of his carefully thought out plan would have miscarried.
"But Kara was systematic in all things. Three weeks after I received the weapon, a clumsy attempt was made to break into my house in the middle of the night. It struck me at the time it was clumsy, because the burglar made a tremendous amount of noise and disappeared soon after he began his attempt, doing no more damage than to break a window in my dining-room. Naturally my mind went to the possibility of a further attempt of this kind, as my house stood on the outskirts of the village, and it was only natural that I should take the pistol from one of my boxes and put it somewhere handy. To make doubly sure, Kara came down the next day and heard the full story of the outrage.
"He did not speak of pistols, but I remember now, though I did not remember at the time, that I mentioned the fact that I had a handy weapon. A fortnight later a second attempt was made to enter the house. I say an attempt, but again I do not believe that the intention was at all serious. The outrage was designed to keep that pistol of mine in a get-at-able place.
"And again Kara came down to see us on the day following the burglary, and again I must have told him, though I have no distinct recollection of the fact, of what had happened the previous night. It would have been unnatural if I had not mentioned the fact, as it was a matter which had formed a subject of discussion between myself, my wife and the servants.
"Then came the threatening letter, with Kara providentially at hand. On the night of the murder, whilst Kara was still in my house, I went out to find his chauffeur. Kara remained a few minutes with my wife and then on some excuse went into the library. There he loaded the pistol, placing one cartridge in the chamber, and trusting to luck that I did not pull the trigger until I had it pointed at my victim. Here he took his biggest chance, because, before sending the weapon to me, he had had the spring of the Browning so eased that the slightest touch set it off and, as you know, the pistol being automatic, the explosion of one cartridge, reloading and firing the next and so on, it was probably that a chance touch would have brought his scheme to nought—probably me also.
"Of what happened on that night you are aware."
He went on to tell of his trial and conviction and skimmed over the life he led until that morning on Dartmoor.
"Kara knew my innocence had been proved and his hatred for me being his great obsession, since I had the thing he had wanted but no longer wanted, let that be understood—he saw the misery he had planned for me and my dear wife being brought to a sudden end. He had, by the way, already planned and carried his plan into execution, a system of tormenting her.
"You did not know," he turned to T. X., "that scarcely a month passed, but some disreputable villain called at her flat, with a story that he had been released from Portland or Wormwood Scrubbs that morning and that he had seen me. The story each messenger brought was one sufficient to break the heart of any but the bravest woman. It was a story of ill-treatment by brutal officials, of my illness, of my madness, of everything calculated to harrow the feelings of a tender-hearted and faithful wife.
"That was Kara's scheme. Not to hurt with the whip or with the knife, but to cut deep at the heart with his evil tongue, to cut to the raw places of the mind. When he found that I was to be released,—he may have guessed, or he may have discovered by some underhand method; that a pardon was about to be signed,—he conceived his great plan. He had less than two days to execute it.
"Through one of his agents he discovered a warder who had been in some trouble with the authorities, a man who was avaricious and was even then on the brink of being discharged from the service for trafficking with prisoners. The bribe he offered this man was a heavy one and the warder accepted.
"Kara had purchased a new monoplane and as you know he was an excellent aviator. With this new machine he flew to Devon and arrived at dawn in one of the unfrequented parts of the moor.
"The story of my own escape needs no telling. My narrative really begins from the moment I put my foot upon the deck of the Mpret. The first person I asked to see was, naturally, my wife. Kara, however, insisted on my going to the cabin he had prepared and changing my clothes, and until then I did not realise I was still in my convict's garb. A clean change was waiting for me, and the luxury of soft shirts and well-fitting garments after the prison uniform I cannot describe.
"After I was dressed I was taken by the Greek steward to the larger stateroom and there I found my darling waiting for me."
His voice sank almost to a whisper, and it was a minute or two before he had mastered his emotions.
"She had been suspicious of Kara, but he had been very insistent. He had detailed the plans and shown her the monoplane, but even then she would not trust herself on board, and she had been waiting in a motor-boat, moving parallel with the yacht, until she saw the landing and realized, as she thought, that Kara was not playing her false. The motor-boat had been hired by Kara and the two men inside were probably as well-bribed as the warder.
"The joy of freedom can only be known to those who have suffered the horrors of restraint. That is a trite enough statement, but when one is describing elemental things there is no room for subtlety. The voyage was a fairly eventless one. We saw very little of Kara, who did not intrude himself upon us, and our main excitement lay in the apprehension that we should be held up by a British destroyer or, that when we reached Gibraltar, we should be searched by the Brit's authorities. Kara had foreseen that possibility and had taken in enough coal to last him for the run.
"We had a fairly stormy passage in the Mediterranean, but after that nothing happened until we arrived at Durazzo. We had to go ashore in disguise, because Kara told us that the English Consul might see us and make some trouble. We wore Turkish dresses, Grace heavily veiled and I wearing a greasy old kaftan which, with my somewhat emaciated face and my unshaven appearance, passed me without comment.
"Kara's home was and is about eighteen miles from Durazzo. It is not on the main road, but it is reached by following one of the rocky mountain paths which wind and twist among the hills to the south-east of the town. The country is wild and mainly uncultivated. We had to pass through swamps and skirt huge lagoons as we mounted higher and higher from terrace to terrace and came to the roads which crossed the mountains.
"Kara's, palace, you could call it no less, is really built within sight of the sea. It is on the Acroceraunian Peninsula near Cape Linguetta. Hereabouts the country is more populated and better cultivated. We passed great slopes entirely covered with mulberry and olive trees, whilst in the valleys there were fields of maize and corn. The palazzo stands on a lofty plateau. It is approached by two paths, which can be and have been well defended in the past against the Sultan's troops or against the bands which have been raised by rival villages with the object of storming and plundering this stronghold.
"The Skipetars, a blood-thirsty crowd without pity or remorse, were faithful enough to their chief, as Kara was. He paid them so well that it was not profitable to rob him; moreover he kept their own turbulent elements fully occupied with the little raids which he or his agents organized from time to time. The palazzo was built rather in the Moorish than in the Turkish style.
"It was a sort of Eastern type to which was grafted an Italian architecture—a house of white-columned courts, of big paved yards, fountains and cool, dark rooms.
"When I passed through the gates I realized for the first time something of Kara's importance. There were a score of servants, all Eastern, perfectly trained, silent and obsequious. He led us to his own room.
"It was a big apartment with divans running round the wall, the most ornate French drawing room suite and an enormous Persian carpet, one of the finest of the kind that has ever been turned out of Shiraz. Here, let me say, that throughout the trip his attitude to me had been perfectly friendly and towards Grace all that I could ask of my best friend, considerate and tactful.
"'We had hardly reached his room before he said to me with that bonhomie which he had observed throughout the trip, 'You would like to see your room?'
"I expressed a wish to that effect. He clapped his hands and a big Albanian servant came through the curtained doorway, made the usual salaam, and Kara spoke to him a few words in a language which I presume was Turkish.
"'He will show you the way,' said Kara with his most genial smile.
"I followed the servant through the curtains which had hardly fallen behind me before I was seized by four men, flung violently on the ground, a filthy tarbosch was thrust into my mouth and before I knew what was happening I was bound hand and foot.
"As I realised the gross treachery of the man, my first frantic thoughts were of Grace and her safety. I struggled with the strength of three men, but they were too many for me and I was dragged along the passage, a door was opened and I was flung into a bare room. I must have been lying on the floor for half an hour when they came for me, this time accompanied by a middle-aged man named Savolio, who was either an Italian or a Greek.
"He spoke English fairly well and he made it clear to me that I had to behave myself. I was led back to the room from whence I had come and found Kara sitting in one of those big armchairs which he affected, smoking a cigarette. Confronting him, still in her Turkish dress, was poor Grace. She was not bound I was pleased to see, but when on my entrance she rose and made as if to come towards me, she was unceremoniously thrown back by the guardian who stood at her side.
"'Mr. John Lexman,' drawled Kara, 'you are at the beginning of a great disillusionment. I have a few things to tell you which will make you feel rather uncomfortable.' It was then that I heard for the first time that my pardon had been signed and my innocence discovered.
"'Having taken a great deal of trouble to get you in prison,' said Kara, 'it isn't likely that I'm going to allow all my plans to be undone, and my plan is to make you both extremely uncomfortable.'
"He did not raise his voice, speaking still in the same conversational tone, suave and half amused.
"'I hate you for two things,' he said, and ticked them off on his fingers: 'the first is that you took the woman that I wanted. To a man of my temperament that is an unpardonable crime. I have never wanted women either as friends or as amusement. I am one of the few people in the world who are self-sufficient. It happened that I wanted your wife and she rejected me because apparently she preferred you.'
"He looked at me quizzically.
"'You are thinking at this moment,' he went on slowly, 'that I want her now, and that it is part of my revenge that I shall put her straight in my harem. Nothing is farther from my desires or my thoughts. The Black Roman is not satisfied with the leavings of such poor trash as you. I hate you both equally and for both of you there is waiting an experience more terrible than even your elastic imagination can conjure. You understand what that means!' he asked me still retaining his calm.
"I did not reply. I dared not look at Grace, to whom he turned.
"'I believe you love your husband, my friend,' he said; 'your love will be put to a very severe test. You shall see him the mere wreckage of the man he is. You shall see him brutalized below the level of the cattle in the field. I will give you both no joys, no ease of mind. From this moment you are slaves, and worse than slaves.'
"He clapped his hands. The interview was ended and from that moment I only saw Grace once."
John Lexman stopped and buried his face in his hands.
"They took me to an underground dungeon cut in the solid rock. In many ways it resembled the dungeon of the Chateau of Chillon, in that its only window looked out upon a wild, storm-swept lake and its floor was jagged rock. I have called it underground, as indeed it was on that side, for the palazzo was built upon a steep slope running down from the spur of the hills.
"They chained me by the legs and left me to my own devices. Once a day they gave me a little goat flesh and a pannikin of water and once a week Kara would come in and outside the radius of my chain he would open a little camp stool and sitting down smoke his cigarette and talk. My God! the things that man said! The things he described! The horrors he related! And always it was Grace who was the centre of his description. And he would relate the stories he was telling to her about myself. I cannot describe them. They are beyond repetition."
John Lexman shuddered and closed his eyes.
"That was his weapon. He did not confront me with the torture of my darling, he did not bring tangible evidence of her suffering—he just sat and talked, describing with a remarkable clarity of language which seemed incredible in a foreigner, the 'amusements' which he himself had witnessed.
"I thought I should go mad. Twice I sprang at him and twice the chain about my legs threw me headlong on that cruel floor. Once he brought the jailer in to whip me, but I took the whipping with such phlegm that it gave him no satisfaction. I told you I had seen Grace only once and this is how it happened.
"It was after the flogging, and Kara, who was a veritable demon in his rage, planned to have his revenge for my indifference. They brought Grace out upon a boat and rowed the boat to where I could see it from my window. There the whip which had been applied to me was applied to her. I can't tell you any more about that," he said brokenly, "but I wish, you don't know how fervently, that I had broken down and given the dog the satisfaction he wanted. My God! It was horrible!
"When the winter came they used to take me out with chains on my legs to gather in wood from the forest. There was no reason why I should be given this work, but the truth was, as I discovered from Salvolio, that Kara thought my dungeon was too warm. It was sheltered from the winds by the hill behind and even on the coldest days and nights it was not unbearable. Then Kara went away for some time. I think he must have gone to England, and he came back in a white fury. One of his big plans had gone wrong and the mental torture he inflicted upon me was more acute than ever.
"In the old days he used to come once a week; now he came almost every day. He usually arrived in the afternoon and I was surprised one night to be awakened from my sleep to see him standing at the door, a lantern in his hand, his inevitable cigarette in his mouth. He always wore the Albanian costume when he was in the country, those white kilted skirts and zouave jackets which the hillsmen affect and, if anything, it added to his demoniacal appearance. He put down the lantern and leant against the wall.
"'I'm afraid that wife of yours is breaking up, Lexman,' he drawled; 'she isn't the good, stout, English stuff that I thought she was.'
"I made no reply. I had found by bitter experience that if I intruded into the conversation, I should only suffer the more.
"'I have sent down to Durazzo to get a doctor,' he went on; 'naturally having taken all this trouble I don't want to lose you by death. She is breaking up,' he repeated with relish and yet with an undertone of annoyance in his voice; 'she asked for you three times this morning.'
"I kept myself under control as I had never expected that a man so desperately circumstanced could do.
"'Kara,' I said as quietly as I could, 'what has she done that she should deserve this hell in which she has lived?'
"He sent out a long ring of smoke and watched its progress across the dungeon.
"'What has she done?' he said, keeping his eye on the ring—I shall always remember every look, every gesture, and every intonation of his voice. 'Why, she has done all that a woman can do for a man like me. She has made me feel little. Until I had a rebuff from her, I had all the world at my feet, Lexman. I did as I liked. If I crooked my little finger, people ran after me and that one experience with her has broken me. Oh, don't think,' he went on quickly, 'that I am broken in love. I never loved her very much, it was just a passing passion, but she killed my self-confidence. After then, whenever I came to a crucial moment in my affairs, when the big manner, the big certainty was absolutely necessary for me to carry my way, whenever I was most confident of myself and my ability and my scheme, a vision of this damned girl rose and I felt that momentary weakening, that memory of defeat, which made all the difference between success and failure.
"'I hated her and I hate her still,' he said with vehemence; 'if she dies I shall hate her more because she will remain everlastingly unbroken to menace my thoughts and spoil my schemes through all eternity.'
"He leant forward, his elbows on his knees, his clenched fist under his chin—how well I can see him!—and stared at me.
"'I could have been king here in this land,' he said, waving his hand toward the interior, 'I could have bribed and shot my way to the throne of Albania. Don't you realize what that means to a man like me? There is still a chance and if I could keep your wife alive, if I could see her broken in reason and in health, a poor, skeleton, gibbering thing that knelt at my feet when I came near her I should recover the mastery of myself. Believe me,' he said, nodding his head, 'your wife will have the best medical advice that it is possible to obtain.'
"Kara went out and I did not see him again for a very long time. He sent word, just a scrawled note in the morning, to say my wife had died."
John Lexman rose up from his seat, and paced the apartment, his head upon his breast.
"From that moment," he said, "I lived only for one thing, to punish Remington Kara. And gentlemen, I punished him."
He stood in the centre of the room and thumped his broad chest with his clenched hand.
"I killed Remington Kara," he said, and there was a little gasp of astonishment from every man present save one. That one was T. X. Meredith, who had known all the time.
After a while Lexman resumed his story.
"I told you that there was a man at the palazzo named Salvolio. Salvolio was a man who had been undergoing a life sentence in one of the prisons of southern Italy. In some mysterious fashion he escaped and got across the Adriatic in a small boat. How Kara found him I don't know. Salvolio was a very uncommunicative person. I was never certain whether he was a Greek or an Italian. All that I am sure about is that he was the most unmitigated villain next to his master that I have ever met.
"He was a quick man with his knife and I have seen him kill one of the guards whom he had thought was favouring me in the matter of diet with less compunction than you would kill a rat.
"It was he who gave me this scar," John Lexman pointed to his cheek. "In his master's absence he took upon himself the task of conducting a clumsy imitation of Kara's persecution. He gave me, too, the only glimpse I ever had of the torture poor Grace underwent. She hated dogs, and Kara must have come to know this and in her sleeping room—she was apparently better accommodated than I—he kept four fierce beasts so chained that they could almost reach her.
"Some reference to my wife from this low brute maddened me beyond endurance and I sprang at him. He whipped out his knife and struck at me as I fell and I escaped by a miracle. He evidently had orders not to touch me, for he was in a great panic of mind, as he had reason to be, because on Kara's return he discovered the state of my face, started an enquiry and had Salvolio taken to the courtyard in the true eastern style and bastinadoed until his feet were pulp.
"You may be sure the man hated me with a malignity which almost rivalled his employer's. After Grace's death Kara went away suddenly and I was left to the tender mercy of this man. Evidently he had been given a fairly free hand. The principal object of Kara's hate being dead, he took little further interest in me, or else wearied of his hobby. Salvolio began his persecutions by reducing my diet. Fortunately I ate very little. Nevertheless the supplies began to grow less and less, and I was beginning to feel the effects of this starvation system when there happened a thing which changed the whole course of my life and opened to me a way to freedom and to vengeance.
"Salvolio did not imitate the austerity of his master and in Kara's absence was in the habit of having little orgies of his own. He would bring up dancing girls from Durazzo for his amusement and invite prominent men in the neighbourhood to his feasts and entertainments, for he was absolutely lord of the palazzo when Kara was away and could do pretty well as he liked. On this particular night the festivities had been more than usually prolonged, for as near as I could judge by the day-light which was creeping in through my window it was about four o'clock in the morning when the big steel-sheeted door was opened and Salvolio came in, more than a little drunk. He brought with him, as I judged, one of his dancing girls, who apparently was privileged to see the sights of the palace.
"For a long time he stood in the doorway talking incoherently in a language which I think must have been Turkish, for I caught one or two words.
"Whoever the girl was, she seemed a little frightened, I could see that, because she shrank back from him though his arm was about her shoulders and he was half supporting his weight upon her. There was fear, not only in the curious little glances she shot at me from time to time, but also in the averted face. Her story I was to learn. She was not of the class from whence Salvolio found the dancers who from time to time came up to the palace for his amusement and the amusement of his guests. She was the daughter of a Turkish merchant of Scutari who had been received into the Catholic Church.
"Her father had gone down to Durazzo during the first Balkan war and then Salvolio had seen the girl unknown to her parent, and there had been some rough kind of courtship which ended in her running away on this very day and joining her ill-favoured lover at the palazzo. I tell you this because the fact had some bearing on my own fate.
"As I say, the girl was frightened and made as though to go from the dungeon. She was probably scared both by the unkempt prisoner and by the drunken man at her side. He, however, could not leave without showing to her something of his authority. He came lurching over near where I lay, his long knife balanced in his hand ready for emergencies, and broke into a string of vituperations of the character to which I was quite hardened.
"Then he took a flying kick at me and got home in my ribs, but again I experienced neither a sense of indignity nor any great hurt. Salvolio had treated me like this before and I had survived it. In the midst of the tirade, looking past him, I was a new witness to an extraordinary scene.
"The girl stood in the open doorway, shrinking back against the door, looking with distress and pity at the spectacle which Salvolio's brutality afforded. Then suddenly there appeared beside her a tall Turk. He was grey-bearded and forbidding. She looked round and saw him, and her mouth opened to utter a cry, but with a gesture he silenced her and pointed to the darkness outside.
"Without a word she cringed past him, her sandalled feet making no noise. All this time Salvolio was continuing his stream of abuse, but he must have seen the wonder in my eyes for he stopped and turned.
"The old Turk took one stride forward, encircled his body with his left arm, and there they stood grotesquely like a couple who were going to start to waltz. The Turk was a head taller than Salvolio and, as I could see, a man of immense strength.
"They looked at one another, face to face, Salvolio rapidly recovering his senses... and then the Turk gave him a gentle punch in the ribs. That is what it seemed like to me, but Salvolio coughed horribly, went limp in the other's arms and dropped with a thud to the ground. The Turk leant down soberly and wiped his long knife on the other's jacket before he put it back in the sash at his waist.
"Then with a glance at me he turned to go, but stopped at the door and looked back thoughtfully. He said something in Turkish which I could not understand, then he spoke in French.
"'Who are you?' he asked.
"In as few words as possible I explained. He came over and looked at the manacle about my leg and shook his head.
"'You will never be able to get that undone,' he said.
"He caught hold of the chain, which was a fairly long one, bound it twice round his arm and steadying his arm across his thigh, he turned with a sudden jerk. There was a smart 'snap' as the chain parted. He caught me by the shoulder and pulled me to my feet. 'Put the chain about your waist, Effendi,' he said, and he took a revolver from his belt and handed it to me.
"'You may need this before we get back to Durazzo,' he said. His belt was literally bristling with weapons—I saw three revolvers beside the one I possessed—and he had, evidently come prepared for trouble. We made our way from the dungeon into the clean-smelling world without.
"It was the second time I had been in the open air for eighteen months and my knees were trembling under me with weakness and excitement. The old man shut the prison door behind us and walked on until we came up to the girl waiting for us by the lakeside. She was weeping softly and he spoke to her a few words in a low voice and her weeping ceased.
"'This daughter of mine will show us the way,' he said, 'I do not know this part of the country—she knows it too well.'
"To cut a long story short," said Lexman, "we reached Durazzo in the afternoon. There was no attempt made to follow us up and neither my absence nor the body of Salvolio were discovered until late in the afternoon. You must remember that nobody but Salvolio was allowed into my prison and therefore nobody had the courage to make any investigations.
"The old man got me to his house without being observed, and brought a brother-in-law or some relative of his to remove the anklet. The name of my host was Hussein Effendi.
"That same night we left with a little caravan to visit some of the old man's relatives. He was not certain what would be the consequence of his act, and for safety's sake took this trip, which would enable him if need be to seek sanctuary with some of the wilder Turkish tribes, who would give him protection.
"In that three months I saw Albania as it is—it was an experience never to be forgotten!
"If there is a better man in God's world than Hiabam Hussein Effendi, I have yet to meet him. It was he who provided me with money to leave Albania. I begged from him, too, the knife with which he had killed Salvolio. He had discovered that Kara was in England and told me something of the Greek's occupation which I had not known before. I crossed to Italy and went on to Milan. There it was that I learnt that an eccentric Englishman who had arrived a few days previously on one of the South American boats at Genoa, was in my hotel desperately ill.
"My hotel I need hardly tell you was not a very expensive one and we were evidently the only two Englishmen in the place. I could do no less than go up and see what I could do for the poor fellow who was pretty well gone when I saw him. I seemed to remember having seen him before and when looking round for some identification I discovered his name I readily recalled the circumstance.
"It was George Gathercole, who had returned from South America. He was suffering from malarial fever and blood poisoning and for a week, with an Italian doctor, I fought as hard as any man could fight for his life. He was a trying patient," John Lexman smiled suddenly at the recollection, "vitriolic in his language, impatient and imperious in his attitude to his friends. He was, for example, terribly sensitive about his lost arm and would not allow either the doctor or my-self to enter the room until he was covered to the neck, nor would he eat or drink in our presence. Yet he was the bravest of the brave, careless of himself and only fretful because he had not time to finish his new book. His indomitable spirit did not save him. He died on the 17th of January of this year. I was in Genoa at the time, having gone there at his request to save his belongings. When I returned he had been buried. I went through his papers and it was then that I conceived my idea of how I might approach Kara.
"I found a letter from the Greek, which had been addressed to Buenos Ayres, to await arrival, and then I remembered in a flash, how Kara had told me he had sent George Gathercole to South America to report upon possible gold formations. I was determined to kill Kara, and determined to kill him in such a way that I myself would cover every trace of my complicity.
"Even as he had planned my downfall, scheming every step and covering his trail, so did I plan to bring about his death that no suspicion should fall on me.
"I knew his house. I knew something of his habits. I knew the fear in which he went when he was in England and away from the feudal guards who had surrounded him in Albania. I knew of his famous door with its steel latch and I was planning to circumvent all these precautions and bring to him not only the death he deserved, but a full knowledge of his fate before he died.
"Gathercole had some money,—about 140 pounds—I took 100 pounds of this for my own use, knowing that I should have sufficient in London to recompense his heirs, and the remainder of the money with all such documents as he had, save those which identified him with Kara, I handed over to the British Consul.
"I was not unlike the dead man. My beard had grown wild and I knew enough of Gathercole's eccentricities to live the part. The first step I took was to announce my arrival by inference. I am a fairly good journalist with a wide general knowledge and with this, corrected by reference to the necessary books which I found in the British Museum library, I was able to turn out a very respectable article on Patagonia.
"This I sent to The Times with one of Gathercole's cards and, as you know, it was printed. My next step was to find suitable lodgings between Chelsea and Scotland Yard. I was fortunate in being able to hire a furnished flat, the owner of which was going to the south of France for three months. I paid the rent in advance and since I dropped all the eccentricities I had assumed to support the character of Gathercole, I must have impressed the owner, who took me without references.
"I had several suits of new clothes made, not in London," he smiled, "but in Manchester, and again I made myself as trim as possible to avoid after-identification. When I had got these together in my flat, I chose my day. In the morning I sent two trunks with most of my personal belongings to the Great Midland Hotel.
"In the afternoon I went to Cadogan Square and hung about until I saw Kara drive off. It was my first view of him since I had left Albania and it required all my self-control to prevent me springing at him in the street and tearing at him with my hands.
"Once he was out of sight I went to the house adopting all the style and all the mannerisms of poor Gathercole. My beginning was unfortunate for, with a shock, I recognised in the valet a fellow-convict who had been with me in the warder's cottage on the morning of my escape from Dartmoor. There was no mistaking him, and when I heard his voice I was certain. Would he recognise me I wondered, in spite of my beard and my eye-glasses?
"Apparently he did not. I gave him every chance. I thrust my face into his and on my second visit challenged him, in the eccentric way which poor old Gathercole had, to test the grey of my beard. For the moment however, I was satisfied with my brief experiment and after a reasonable interval I went away, returning to my place off Victoria Street and waiting till the evening.
"In my observation of the house, whilst I was waiting for Kara to depart, I had noticed that there were two distinct telephone wires running down to the roof. I guessed, rather than knew, that one of these telephones was a private wire and, knowing something of Kara's fear, I presumed that that wire would lead to a police office, or at any rate to a guardian of some kind or other. Kara had the same arrangement in Albania, connecting the palazzo with the gendarme posts at Alesso. This much Hussein told me.
"That night I made a reconnaissance of the house and saw Kara's window was lit and at ten minutes past ten I rang the bell and I think it was then that I applied the test of the beard. Kara was in his room, the valet told me, and led the way upstairs. I had come prepared to deal with this valet for I had an especial reason for wishing that he should not be interrogated by the police. On a plain card I had written the number he bore in Dartmoor and had added the words, 'I know you, get out of here quick.'
"As he turned to lead the way upstairs I flung the envelope containing the card on the table in the hall. In an inside pocket, as near to my body as I could put them, I had the two candles. How I should use them both I had already decided. The valet ushered me into Kara's room and once more I stood in the presence of the man who had killed my girl and blotted out all that was beautiful in life for me."
There was a breathless silence when he paused. T. X. leaned back in his chair, his head upon his breast, his arms folded, his eyes watching the other intently.
The Chief Commissioner, with a heavy frown and pursed lips, sat stroking his moustache and looking under his shaggy eyebrows at the speaker. The French police officer, his hands thrust deep in his pockets, his head on one side, was taking in every word eagerly. The sallow-faced Russian, impassive of face, might have been a carved ivory mask. O'Grady, the American, the stump of a dead cigar between his teeth, shifted impatiently with every pause as though he would hurry forward the denouement.
Presently John Lexman went on.
"He slipped from the bed and came across to meet me as I closed the door behind me.
"'Ah, Mr. Gathercole,' he said, in that silky tone of his, and held out his hand.
"I did not speak. I just looked at him with a sort of fierce joy in my heart the like of which I had never before experienced.
"'And then he saw in my eyes the truth and half reached for the telephone.
"But at that moment I was on him. He was a child in my hands. All the bitter anguish he had brought upon me, all the hardships of starved days and freezing nights had strengthened and hardened me. I had come back to London disguised with a false arm and this I shook free. It was merely a gauntlet of thin wood which I had had made for me in Paris.
"I flung him back on the bed and half knelt, half laid on him.
"'Kara,' I said, 'you are going to die, a more merciful death than my wife died.'
"He tried to speak. His soft hands gesticulated wildly, but I was half lying on one arm and held the other.
"I whispered in his ear:
"'Nobody will know who killed you, Kara, think of that! I shall go scot free—and you will be the centre of a fine mystery! All your letters will be read, all your life will be examined and the world will know you for what you are!'
"I released his arm for just as long as it took to draw my knife and strike. I think he died instantly," John Lexman said simply.
"I left him where he was and went to the door. I had not much time to spare. I took the candles from my pocket. They were already ductile from the heat of my body.
"I lifted up the steel latch of the door and propped up the latch with the smaller of the two candles, one end of which was on the middle socket and the other beneath the latch. The heat of the room I knew would still further soften the candle and let the latch down in a short time.
"I was prepared for the telephone by his bedside though I did not know to whither it led. The presence of the paper-knife decided me. I balanced it across the silver cigarette box so that one end came under the telephone receiver; under the other end I put the second candle which I had to cut to fit. On top of the paper-knife at the candle end I balanced the only two books I could find in the room, and fortunately they were heavy.
"I had no means of knowing how long it would take to melt the candle to a state of flexion which would allow the full weight of the books to bear upon the candle end of the paper-knife and fling off the receiver. I was hoping that Fisher had taken my warning and had gone. When I opened the door softly, I heard his footsteps in the hall below. There was nothing to do but to finish the play.
"I turned and addressed an imaginary conversation to Kara. It was horrible, but there was something about it which aroused in me a curious sense of humour and I wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh!
"I heard the man coming up the stairs and closed the door gingerly. What length of time would it take for the candle to bend!
"To completely establish the alibi I determined to hold Fisher in conversation and this was all the easier since apparently he had not seen the envelope I had left on the table downstairs. I had not long to wait for suddenly with a crash I heard the steel latch fall in its place. Under the effect of the heat the candle had bent sooner than I had expected. I asked Fisher what was the meaning of the sound and he explained. I passed down the stairs talking all the time. I found a cab at Sloane Square and drove to my lodgings. Underneath my overcoat I was partly dressed in evening kit.
"Ten minutes after I entered the door of my flat I came out a beardless man about town, not to be distinguished from the thousand others who would be found that night walking the promenade of any of the great music-halls. From Victoria Street I drove straight to Scotland Yard. It was no more than a coincidence that whilst I should have been speaking with you all, the second candle should have bent and the alarm be given in the very office in which I was sitting.
"I assure you all in all earnestness that I did not suspect the cause of that ringing until Mr. Mansus spoke.
"There, gentlemen, is my story!" He threw out his arms.
"You may do with me as you will. Kara was a murderer, dyed a hundred times in innocent blood. I have done all that I set myself to do—that and no more—that and no less. I had thought to go away to America, but the nearer the day of my departure approached, the more vivid became the memory of the plans which she and I had formed, my girl... my poor martyred girl!"
He sat at the little table, his hands clasped before him, his face lined and white.
"And that is the end!" he said suddenly, with a wry smile.
"Not quite!" T. X. swung round with a gasp. It was Belinda Mary who spoke.
"I can carry it on," she said.
She was wonderfully self-possessed, thought T. X., but then T. X. never thought anything of her but that she was "wonderfully" something or the other.
"Most of your story is true, Mr. Lexman," said this astonishing girl, oblivious of the amazed eyes that were staring at her, "but Kara deceived you in one respect."
"What do you mean?" asked John Lexman, rising unsteadily to his feet.
For answer she rose and walked back to the door with the chintz curtains and flung it open: There was a wait which seemed an eternity, and then through the doorway came a girl, slim and grave and beautiful.
"My God!" whispered T. X. "Grace Lexman!"
They went out and left them alone, two people who found in this moment a heaven which is not beyond the reach of humanity, but which is seldom attained to. Belinda Mary had an eager audience all to her very self.
"Of course she didn't die," she said scornfully. "Kara was playing on his fears all the time. He never even harmed her—in the way Mr. Lexman feared. He told Mrs. Lexman that her husband was dead just as he told John Lexman his wife was gone. What happened was that he brought her back to England—"
"Who?" asked T. X., incredulously.
"Grace Lexman," said the girl, with a smile. "You wouldn't think it possible, but when you realize that he had a yacht of his own and that he could travel up from whatever landing place he chose to his house in Cadogan Square by motorcar and that he could take her straight away into his cellar without disturbing his household, you'll understand that the only difficulty he had was in landing her. It was in the lower cellar that I found her."
"You found her in the cellar?" demanded the Chief Commissioner.
The girl nodded.
"I found her and the dog—you heard how Kara terrified her—and I killed the dog with my own hands," she said a little proudly, and then shivered. "It was very beastly," she admitted.
"And she's been living with you all this time and you've said nothing!" asked T. X., incredulously. Belinda Mary nodded.
"And that is why you didn't want me to know where you were living?" She nodded again.
"You see she was very ill," she said, "and I had to nurse her up, and of course I knew that it was Lexman who had killed Kara and I couldn't tell you about Grace Lexman without betraying him. So when Mr. Lexman decided to tell his story, I thought I'd better supply the grand denouement."
The men looked at one another.
"What are you going to do about Lexman?" asked the Chief Commissioner, "and, by the way, T. X., how does all this fit your theories!"
"Fairly well," replied T. X. coolly; "obviously the man who committed the murder was the man introduced into the room as Gathercole and as obviously it was not Gathercole, although to all appearance, he had lost his left arm."
"Why obvious?" asked the Chief Commissioner.
"Because," answered T. X. Meredith, "the real Gathercole had lost his right arm—that was the one error Lexman made."
"H'm," the Chief pulled at his moustache and looked enquiringly round the room, "we have to make up our minds very quickly about Lexman," he said. "What do you think, Carlneau?"
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders.
"For my part I should not only importune your Home Secretary to pardon him, but I should recommend him for a pension," he said flippantly.
"What do you think, Savorsky?"
The Russian smiled a little.
"It is a very impressive story," he said dispassionately; "it occurs to me that if you intend bringing your M. Lexman to judgment you are likely to expose some very pretty scandals. Incidentally," he said, stroking his trim little moustache, "I might remark that any exposure which drew attention to the lawless conditions of Albania would not be regarded by my government with favour."
The Chief Commissioner's eyes twinkled and he nodded.
"That is also my view," said the Chief of the Italian bureau; "naturally we are greatly interested in all that happens on the Adriatic littoral. It seems to me that Kara has come to a very merciful end and I am not inclined to regard a prosecution of Mr. Lexman with equanimity."
"Well, I guess the political aspect of the case doesn't affect us very much," said O'Grady, "but as one who was once mighty near asphyxiated by stirring up the wrong kind of mud, I should leave the matter where it is."
The Chief Commissioner was deep in thought and Belinda Mary eyed him anxiously.
"Tell them to come in," he said bluntly.
The girl went and brought John Lexman and his wife, and they came in hand in hand supremely and serenely happy whatever the future might hold for them. The Chief Commissioner cleared his throat.
"Lexman, we're all very much obliged to you," he said, "for a very interesting story and a most interesting theory. What you have done, as I understand the matter," he proceeded deliberately, "is to put yourself in the murderer's place and advance a theory not only as to how the murder was actually committed, but as to the motive for that murder. It is, I might say, a remarkable piece of reconstruction," he spoke very deliberately, and swept away John Lexman's astonished interruption with a stern hand, "please wait and do not speak until I am out of hearing," he growled. "You have got into the skin of the actual assassin and have spoken most convincingly. One might almost think that the man who killed Remington Kara was actually standing before us. For that piece of impersonation we are all very grateful;" he glared round over his spectacles at his understanding colleagues and they murmured approvingly.
He looked at his watch.
"Now I am afraid I must be off," he crossed the room and put out his hand to John Lexman. "I wish you good luck," he said, and took both Grace Lexman's hands in his. "One of these days," he said paternally, "I shall come down to Beston Tracey and your husband shall tell me another and a happier story."
He paused at the door as he was going out and looking back caught the grateful eyes of Lexman.
"By the way, Mr. Lexman," he said hesitatingly, "I don't think I should ever write a story called 'The Clue of the Twisted Candle,' if I were you."
John Lexman shook his head.
"It will never be written," he said, "—by me."