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 ins 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, anal then through the doorway came a girl, slim and grave and beautiful.
"My God!" whispered T. X. "Grace Lexman!"