In the early hours of the morning a tragic little party was assembled in the study at Beston Priory. John Lexman, white and haggard, sat on the sofa with his wife by his side. Immediate authority as represented by a village constable was on duty in the passage outside, whilst T. X. sitting at the table with a writing pad and a pencil was briefly noting the evidence.
The author had sketched the events of the day. He had described his interview with the money-lender the day before and the arrival of the letter.
"You have the letter!" asked T. X.
John Lexman nodded.
"I am glad of that," said the other with a sigh of relief, "that will save you from a great deal of unpleasantness, my poor old chap. Tell me what happened afterward."
"I reached the village," said John Lexman, "and passed through it. There was nobody about, the rain was still falling very heavily and indeed I didn't meet a single soul all the evening. I reached the place appointed about five minutes before time. It was the corner of Eastbourne Road on the station side and there I found Vassalaro waiting. I was rather ashamed of myself at meeting him at all under these conditions, but I was very keen on his not coming to the house for I was afraid it would upset Grace. What made it all the more ridiculous was this infernal pistol which was in my pocket banging against my side with every step I took as though to nudge me to an understanding of my folly."
"Where did you meet Vassalaro?" asked T. X.
"He was on the other side of the Eastbourne Road and crossed the road to meet me. At first he was very pleasant though a little agitated but afterward he began to behave in a most extraordinary manner as though he was lashing himself up into a fury which he didn't feel. I promised him a substantial amount on account, but he grew worse and worse and then, suddenly, before I realised what he was doing, he was brandishing a revolver in my face and uttering the most extraordinary threats. Then it was I remembered Kara's warning."
"Kara," said T. X. quickly.
"A man I know and who was responsible for introducing me to Vassalaro. He is immensely wealthy."
"I see," said T. X., "go on."
"I remembered this warning," the other proceeded, "and I thought it worth while trying it out to see if it had any effect upon the little man. I pulled the pistol from my pocket and pointed it at him, but that only seemed to make it - and then I pressed the trigger . . . .
"To my horror four shots exploded before I could recover sufficient self-possession to loosen my hold of the butt. He fell without a word. I dropped the revolver and knelt by his side. I could tell he was dangerously wounded, and indeed I knew at that moment that nothing would save him. My pistol had been pointed in the region of his heart . . . . "
He shuddered, dropping his face in his hands, and the girl by his side, encircling his shoulder with a protecting arm, murmured something in his ear. Presently he recovered.
"He wasn't quite dead. I heard him murmur something but I wasn't able to distinguish what he said. I went straight to the village and told the constable and had the body removed."
T. X. rose from the table and walked to the door and opened it.
"Come in, constable," he said, and when the man made his appearance, "I suppose you were very careful in removing this body, and you took everything which was lying about in the immediate ate vicinity'?"
"Yes, sir," replied the man, "I took his hat and his walkingstick, if that's what you mean."
"And the revolver!" asked T. X.
The man shook his head.
"There warn't any revolver, sir, except the pistol which Mr. Lexman had."
He fumbled in his pocket and pulled it out gingerly, and T. X. took it from him.
"I'll look after your prisoner; you go down to the village, get any help you can and make a most careful search in the place where this man was killed and bring me the revolver which you will discover. You'll probably find it in a ditch by the side of the road. I'll give a sovereign to the man who finds it."
The constable touched his hat and went out.
"It looks rather a weird case to me," said T. X., as he came back to the table, "can't you see the unusual features yourself, Lexman! It isn't unusual for you to owe money and it isn't unusual for the usurer to demand the return of that money, but in this case he is asking for it before it was due, and further than that he was demanding it with threats. It is not the practice of the average money lender to go after his clients with a loaded revolver. Another peculiar thing is that if he wished to blackmail you, that is to say, bring you into contempt in the eyes of your friends, why did he choose to meet you in a dark and unfrequented road, and not in your house where the moral pressure would be greatest? Also, why did he write you a threatening letter which would certainly bring him into the grip of the law and would have saved you a great deal of unpleasantness if he had decided upon taking action!"
He tapped his white teeth with the end of his pencil and then suddenly,
"I think I'll see that letter," he said.
John Lexman rose from the sofa, crossed to the safe, unlocked it and was unlocking the steel drawer in which he had placed the incriminating document. His hand was on the key when T. X. noticed the look of surprise on his face.
"What is it!" asked the detective suddenly.
"This drawer feels very hot," said John, - he looked round as though to measure the distance between the safe and the fire.
T. X. laid his hand upon the front of the drawer. It was indeed warm.
"Open it," said T. X., and Lexman turned the key and pulled the drawer open.
As he did so, the whole contents burst up in a quick blaze of flame. It died down immediately and left only a little coil of smoke that flowed from the safe into the room.
"Don't touch anything inside," said T. X. quickly.
He lifted the drawer carefully and placed it under the light. In the bottom was no more than a few crumpled white ashes and a blister of paint where the flame had caught the side.
"I see," said T. X. slowly.
He saw something more than that handful of ashes, he saw the deadly peril in which his friend was standing. Here was one half of the evidence in Lexman's favour gone, irredeemably.
"The letter was written on a paper which was specially prepared by a chemical process which disintegrated the moment the paper was exposed to the air. Probably if you delayed putting the letter in the drawer another five minutes, you would have seen it burn before your eyes. As it was, it was smouldering before you had turned the key of the box. The envelope!"
"Kara burnt it," said Lexman in a low voice, "I remember seeing him take it up from the table and throw it in the fire."
T. X. nodded.
"There remains the other half of the evidence," he said grimly, and when an hour later, the village constable returned to report that in spite of his most careful search he had failed to discover the dead man's revolver, his anticipations were realized.
The next morning John Lexman was lodged in Lewes gaol on a charge of wilful murder.
A telegram brought Mansus from London to Beston Tracey, and T. X. received him in the library.
"I sent for you, Mansus, because I suffer from the illusion that you have more brains than most of the people in my department, and that's not saying much."
"I am very grateful to you, sir, for putting me right with Commissioner," began Mansus, but T. X. stopped him.
"It is the duty of every head of departments," he said oracularly, "to shield the incompetence of his subordinates. It is only by the adoption of some such method that the decencies of the public life can be observed. Now get down to this." He gave a sketch of the case from start to finish in as brief a space of time as possible.
"The evidence against Mr. Lexman is very heavy," he said. "He borrowed money from this man, and on the man's body were found particulars of the very Promissory Note which Lexman signed. Why he should have brought it with him, I cannot say. Anyhow I doubt very much whether Mr. Lexman will get a jury to accept his version. Our only chance is to find the Greek's revolver - I don't think there's any very great chance, but if we are to be successful we must make a search at once."
Before he went out he had an interview with Grace. The dark shadows under her eyes told of a sleepless night. She was unusually pale and surprisingly calm.
"I think there are one or two things I ought to tell you," she said, as she led the way into the drawing room, closing the door behind him.
"And they concern Mr. Kara, I think," said T. X.
She looked at him startled.
"How did you know that?"
"I know nothing."
He hesitated on the brink of a flippant claim of omniscience, but realizing in time the agony she must be suffering he checked his natural desire.
"I really know nothing," he continued, "but I guess a lot," and that was as near to the truth as you might expect T. X. to reach on the spur of the moment.
She began without preliminary.
"In the first place I must tell you that Mr. Kara once asked me to marry him, and for reasons which I will give you, I am dreadfully afraid of him."
She described without reserve the meeting at Salonika and Kara's extravagant rage and told of the attempt which had been made upon her.
"Does John know this?" asked T. X.
She shook her head sadly.
"I wish I had told him now," she said. "Oh, how I wish I had!" She wrung her hands in an ecstasy of sorrow and remorse.
T. X. looked at her sympathetically. Then he asked,
"Did Mr. Kara ever discuss your husband's financial position with you!"
"How did John Lexman happen to meet Vassalaro!"
"I can tell you that," she answered, "the first time we met Mr. Kara in England was when we were staying at Babbacombe on a summer holiday - which was really a prolongation of our honeymoon. Mr. Kara came to stay at the same hotel. I think Mr. Vassalaro must have been there before; at any rate they knew one another and after Kara's introduction to my husband the rest was easy.
"Can I do anything for John!" she asked piteously.
T. X. shook his head.
"So far as your story is concerned, I don't think you will advantage him by telling it," he said. "There is nothing whatever to connect Kara with this business and you would only give your husband a great deal of pain. I'll do the best I can."
He held out his hand and she grasped it and somehow at that moment there came to T. X. Meredith a new courage, a new faith and a greater determination than ever to solve this troublesome mystery.
He found Mansus waiting for him in a car outside and in a few minutes they were at the scene of the tragedy. A curious little knot of spectators had gathered, looking with morbid interest at the place where the body had been found. There was a local policeman on duty and to him was deputed the ungracious task of warning his fellow villagers to keep their distance. The ground had already been searched very carefully. The two roads crossed almost at right angles and at the corner of the cross thus formed, the hedges were broken, admitting to a field which had evidently been used as a pasture by an adjoining dairy farm. Some rough attempt had been made to close the gap with barbed wire, but it was possible to step over the drooping strands with little or no difficulty. It was to this gap that T. X. devoted his principal attention. All the fields had been carefully examined without result, the four drains which were merely the connecting pipes between ditches at the sides of the crossroads had been swept out and only the broken hedge and its tangle of bushes behind offered any prospect of the new search being rewarded.
"Hullo!" said Mansus, suddenly, and stooping down he picked up something from the ground.
T. X. took it in his hand.
It was unmistakably a revolver cartridge. He marked the spot where it had been found by jamming his walking stick into the ground and continued his search, but without success.
"I am afraid we shall find nothing more here," said T. X., after half an hour's further search. He stood with his chin in his hand, a frown on his face.
"Mansus," he said, "suppose there were three people here, Lexman, the money lender and a third witness. And suppose this third person for some reason unknown was interested in what took place between the two men and he wanted to watch unobserved. Isn't it likely that if he, as I think, instigated the meeting, he would have chosen this place because this particular hedge gave him a chance of seeing without being seen?"
"He could have seen just as well from either of the other hedges, with less chance of detection," he said, after a long pause.
T. X. grinned.
"You have the makings of a brain," he said admiringly. "I agree with you. Always remember that, Mansus. That there was one occasion in your life when T. X. Meredith and you thought alike."
Mansus smiled a little feebly.
"Of course from the point of view of the observer this was the worst place possible, so whoever came here, if they did come here, dropping revolver bullets about, must have chosen the spot because it was get-at-able from another direction. Obviously he couldn't come down the road and climb in without attracting the attention of the Greek who was waiting for Mr. Lexman. We may suppose there is a gate farther along the road, we may suppose that he entered that gate, came along the field by the side of the hedge and that somewhere between here and the gate, he threw away his cigar."
"His cigar!" said Mansus in surprise.
"His cigar," repeated T. X., "if he was alone, he would keep his cigar alight until the very last moment."
"He might have thrown it into the road," said Mansus.
"Don't jibber," said T. X., and led the way along the hedge. From where they stood they could see the gate which led on to the road about a hundred yards further on. Within a dozen yards of that gate, T. X. found what he had been searching for, a half-smoked cigar. It was sodden with rain and he picked it up tenderly.
"A good cigar, if I am any judge," he said, "cut with a penknife, and smoked through a holder."
They reached the gate and passed through. Here they were on the road again and this they followed until they reached another cross road that to the left inclining southward to the new Eastbourne Road and that to the westward looking back to the Lewes-Eastbourne railway. The rain had obliterated much that T. X. was looking for, but presently he found a faint indication of a car wheel.
"This is where she turned and backed," he said, and walked slowly to the road on the left, "and this is where she stood. There is the grease from her engine."
He stooped down and moved forward in the attitude of a Russian dancer, "And here are the wax matches which the chauffeur struck," he counted, "one, two, three, four, five, six, allow three for each cigarette on a boisterous night like last night, that makes three cigarettes. Here is a cigarette end, Mansus, Gold Flake brand," he said, as he examined it carefully, "and a Gold Flake brand smokes for twelve minutes in normal weather, but about eight minutes in gusty weather. A car was here for about twenty-four minutes - what do you think of that, Mansus?"
"A good bit of reasoning, T. X.," said the other calmly, "if it happens to be the car you're looking for."
"I am looking for any old car," said T. X.
He found no other trace of car wheels though he carefully followed up the little lane until it reached the main road. After that it was hopeless to search because rain had fallen in the night and in the early hours of the morning. He drove his assistant to the railway station in time to catch the train at one o'clock to London.
"You will go straight to Cadogan Square and arrest the chauffeur of Mr. Kara," he said.
"Upon what charge!" asked Mansus hurriedly.
When it came to the step which T. X. thought fit to take in the pursuance of his duty, Mansus was beyond surprise.
"You can charge him with anything you like," said T. X., with fine carelessness, "probably something will occur to you on your way up to town. As a matter of fact the chauffeur has been called unexpectedly away to Greece and has probably left by this morning's train for the Continent. If that is so, we can do nothing, because the boat will have left Dover and will have landed him at Boulogne, but if by any luck you get him, keep him busy until I get back."
T. X. himself was a busy man that day, and it was not until night was falling that he again turned to Beston Tracey to find a telegram waiting for him. He opened it and read,
"Chauffeur's name, Goole. Formerly waiter English Club, Constantinople. Left for east by early train this morning, his mother being ill."
"His mother ill," said T. X. contemptuously, "how very feeble, - I should have thought Kara could have gone one better than that."
He was in John Lexman's study as the door opened and the maid announced, "Mr. Remington Kara."