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.