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 weeks 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.