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.
"Yours truly, "A FRIEND."
"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.