Donna Laura's Diamond
I HAD persuaded my friend, H. B. Treadgold, to take a holiday away from the vicunas and cheviots of Savile Row and accompany me on a Mediterranean cruise. We were spending a couple of days in Paris on our way back to London, and were breakfasting in our dressing gowns the morning after our arrival when the door of our hotel suite was flung violently open.
A strapping young man stood there. “Mr. Treadgold,” he cried, “glory be. I’ve found you. I read in this morning’s Herald that you’d arrived in Paris and carne straight to see you. Do you remember me from New York Jack Danesworth?”
Mr. Treadgold’s healthy pink countenance was creased in a welcoming smile. “I heard you were practicing law in Paris, Jack. Meet a brother of the cloth, my boy George Duckett, who looks after my legal business. Our New York branch,” he explained to me. “has been making clothes for Danesworths since I don’t know when, and that’s a long, long time.” He chuckled. "Sit down, Jack, and have some breakfast with us.” He bent bushy eyebrows at him. “You look as though a cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt you. And when did you shave last?”
With a rueful air the young man rubbed his chin. His face was lined with fatigue, his collar soiled. “I haven’t shaved or slept for the past two days.” he exclaimed, dropping into a chair. ‘‘No, I’ve had breakfast, thanks,” he told me. as I moved toward the bell. “Mr. Treadgold, one of my clients has disappeared and you’ve got to find her. It’s the Princess Malatesta.”
“Her father, Prince Prospero Malatesta. was; her mother came from Pittsburgh. Gemma was the only child. She doesn’t remember her father, for the marriage was disastrous and the mother soon returned to America, bringing the baby with her. When Gemma was eighteen her mother died, leaving very little money, and for the past four years Gemma has been earning her living as a dress designer in New York. About two months ago a Turin lawyer wrote and informed her that her father had been killed with the Italians in Abyssinia. Gemma was the last of the Malatestas and the only heir; she was to come to Italy and take over his estate. She arrived in Turin a month ago. but what with the Italian exchange regulations and so forth it has been a long business, and a fortnight ago she turned up in Paris and took a studio. She had a letter to me from the firm of attorneys I do business with in New York.”
“And you say she’s disappeared?”
“What do the police say?”
The young man frowned. “You know what the police are. Every time a girl leaves home they think there’s a man back of it.”
“And is there a man in the case?”
“There’s an Italian called Aldini she’s been running around with. But I believe the cursed diamond is behind it.” “What diamond?”
DANES WORTH looked for a cigarette and I handed him my packet. “It’s a crazy story. Donna Laura’s diamond, they call it. It’s a family heirloom—except for some vineyards in the south of Italy it was about all the prince had to leave. There’s a legend attaching to it. It’s a beautiful Golconda stone, about thirty-five carats, set between two claws. The story goes that Cosimo Malatesta. an ancestor who lived in Florence in the sixteenth century, gave it to Donna Laura, his wife. Coming home unexpectedly one day, he found her in the arms of a groom.
Drawing his sword, he struck the man’s head off, then told the wife to prepare for the same death. She begged for her life but he was inexorable, so, before she bowed her neck to his sword, she put a curse on the ring. Whoever wore it henceforward, she predicted, would die as she was about to die; that is to say, they’d be beheaded.”
Mr. Treadgold shivered. “A sinister legend indeed. But after all. only a legend.”
The young man looked at him oddly. “Wait!” he said. “You haven’t heard the half of it. The diamond disappeared for centuries. It eventually turned up in the possession of the Princess de Lamballe.”
My friend drew down his eyebrows. “The friend of Marie Antoinette?”
“Sure. She was a kinswoman of the Malatestas. You know what happened to her!”
“Oh, yes. The mob cut off her head and paraded it on a pike under the queen’s window in her prison at the Temple.”
“Gemma had the legend from her mother, who never would wear the ring, which consequently remained in the prince’s ix>ssession. When he died it came to Gemma.
She’d never had any good jewellery before and so she wore the ring. I wanted her to put it in the bank, as it wasn’t insured; but she said that didn't matter as she never intended to take it off and she couldn’t afford the insurance premiums anyway, although, as I told her, I ’cl gladly have advanced the money. But that’s Gemma all over. She’s a grand person and terribly independent. Modern-minded, too. She laughed at the legenduntil the other day, when this darn fellow, Aldini, spilled the beans.”
“Bruno Aldini, this Italian friend of hers I told you of. He seems to have plenty of money; at least, he’s been living at the Rex, which is quite an expensive hotel.”
“Was she in love with him?”
The young man flushed. “I don’t think so—I don’t know. He’s a marvellous dancer and she’s mad about dancing. They used to go dancing together.” He broke off. “Two days ago, on Tuesday, that is, Gemma lunched with me at the Georges Cinq. The moment I clapped eyes on her I saw that something was wrong and I noticed that she wasn’t wearing the ring. Then the story came out. She’d been out with Aldini the night before and he’d brought up the legend of the diamondGemma told everybody about it. He asked her if she knew how her father had died, and she said she understood he’d been shot down in his plane—he was an observer with the Italian flying corps. Aldini said, true enough but he’d fallen alive into the hands of the tribesmen and they’d cut off his head. The censorship kept the story out of the press. The prince’s lawyer must have known about it, but presumably he wanted to spare Gemma.”
A/TR. TREADGOLD doffed his pince-nez, wiped them carefully and popped them on his nose again. “A most extraordinary story,” he commented. “Are you going to tell us that the prince was wearing the ring?”
“It never left his finger. When they crashed he was injured, and he gave the ring to the pilot who was unhurt and went off to summon help. It was sent home with the rest of the prince’s effects. Gemma was badly shaken. She told me she’d never wear the ring again, spoke of giving it to charity. I tried to laugh her out of it. I told her if she didn’t intend to wear it she might as well sell it—the stone alone was valued for probate at the equivalent of fifty thousand dollars. But she was adamant; she wouldn’t wear the diamond and she wouldn’t profit by its sale. When I asked her what she’d done with it, all she’d say was that she’d put it in a safe place. After lunch she left me to do some shopping, and that’s the last I saw of her. She never went home.”
TAILOR-DETECTIVE TREADGOLD ENCOUNTERS A SINISTER CONSPIRACY, AND A CONSPIRACY DISCOVERS THAT TRAGEDY MARCHES WITH CUPIDITY
He passed his hand wearily across his forehead. “I don’t mind telling you, I’m scared for her. Normally, she’s as game as they come, tremendously self-reliant, the grandest person. But this tale about her father had her all broken up.” He sprang to his feet. ‘‘I can’t bear to think what she mightn’t have done, the state she was in.”
“Take it easy, Jack,” Mr. Treadgold’s quiet voice struck in. “This man, Aldini, now—why do the French think she may have gone off with him?”
He shrugged sulkily. “Because he checked out of his hotel the same afternoon. But you know the French— they’re always prepared to think the worst of American girls, especially an artist like Gemma living alone with just a maid to look after her. If Gemma has really run away with Bruno Aldini. why didn’t she take any baggage?” “You’ve established this?”
“I’ve seen Maria, her maid—an Italian woman Gemma
brought back with her from Turin. After our lunch on Tuesday I couldn’t help feeling worried, and on leaving the office I went up to the studio. Gemma wasn’t there. She hadn’t been back since leaving home at noon to meet me; she never came back. I hung around until eight or nine o’clock, then called Aldini on a chance, only to discover that he checked out of his hotel after lunch, leaving no address.”
“She didn’t tell the maid anything?”
“No. Maria was expecting her for dinner. She didn’t take even an overnight bag with her. She had nothing but the clothes she stood up in, the clothes she was wearing at lunch.”
“You went to the police?”
“Next day—yesterday morning.”
“What did they do?”
“Beyond verifying these facts, nothing.”
“What do they say about Aldini?”
“He paid his hotel bill before leaving—that seems to be enough for them. They say he has no record.”
“You think she didn’t have the diamond with her?”
“She wasn’t wearing it and she didn’t deposit it at her bank, the Wisconsin Trust on the Place Vendôme. I was there yesterday—the manager’s a friend of mine.” He
paused. “You can find her for me if you try, Mr. Treadgold. All 1 want to know is that nothing has happened to her.”
“Even if she’s run off with this Italian?”
The young man sighed. “Even that.”
Mr. Treadgold glanced at his watch. “Get that maid of hers and bring her here to see me. Meantime, George and I will dress.”
”1 11 be round with her in half an hour if she’s home,” Danesworth declared, a new note of eagerness in his voice. Snatching up his hat, he rushed from the room, while Mr. Treadgold, after consulting a small pocket diary, lifted the telephone receiver. Meanwhile 1 had gone into the bathroom we shared and start«1 to shave. As 1 lathered my face I heard my friend in the adjoining room say in his careful French, “Prefecture of Police? Inspector Hablard, if you please.”
Hablard and Mr. Treadgold, I knew, were old acquaintances. An appointment was made for noon that day at the Prefecture. “You know, H.B.,” I remarked as Mr. Treadgold came lumbering into the bathroom, "a yarn like this takes us straight back to the days of the Borgias.” He cocked his head at me shrewdly. "The French police don’t make many mistakes where women are concerned, George. If you ask me, the legend still holds good, if not quite in the way we think. Danesworth’s little friend has lost her head like the others. But not to the headsman— rather to the languishing glances of her Romeo.” He chuckled. “What did Uncle Toby say?”
“Not Tristram Shandy’ at ten o'clock in the morning, for pity’s sake, H.B. !” I entreated and threw my sponge at him. Still chuckling, he retired under the shower.
YY/HEN, SOME twenty minutes later, we returned to * * the sitting room, Danesworth was there with a small, swarthy, tight-lipped woman who seemed to be in her thirties. It was the princess’s maid. Madame had engaged her at Turin, Maria told Mr. Treadgold in very fair English; she wanted an Italian maid in order to brush up her Italian. They had been a fortnight in Paris, and during that time Signor Aldini had frequently called at the studio. She had no idea what his relations were with madame; it was none of her business. Of course she was familiar with the ring. As for any legend about it, she did not concern herself with such things. Madame always wore the ring, but whether she was wearing it when she went out on Tuesday she couldn’t really say. She had expected madame back to dinner. If madame had changed her plans, it was her affair; madame was never very expansive about herself. How had the princess come to engage her?
For the first time the woman hesitated. She had read in the newspaper of madames arrival in Turin, she said at length rather sullenly, and had offered her services— members of her family had served the Malatestas in the past.
At Naples. The Malatestas came from Naples. If the matter was of importance, she admitted grudgingly, she, too, was Napolitana.
Beyond this we gleaned nothing, and as it was getting on for noon Maria was dismissed and the three of us took a taxi to the Prefecture. Inspector Hablard was affable but not helpful. One must not take such things too tragically, he assured us; there was a man concerned in at least three quarters of the annual disappearances of women in Paris, and there were reports to show that during the past fortnight the princess and her friend Aldini had been seen constantly together--he pulled out a dossier—tenez, at the Ritz Bar, the Boeuf sur le Toit, Chez Florence. The American gentleman feared that the young lady had destroyed herself; eh bien, the police would keep an eye on the morgue.
Aldini? It seemed to me that the inspector’s manner became a shade reserved—all that he could tell us about him was that he apparently had paid his way since his arrival in Paris and had no criminal record. An adventurer? It might be, but since when was it a crime for an attractive foreigner to pay attention to a young woman of title? As for the ring, until an official complaint was lodged charging a specific individual with its theft, the police were powerless. The inspector s'ool up. He was desolated, but he was obliged to beg his good friend, Monsieur Treadgol’ to excuse him. A conference with the head of the Sûreté . . .
“Stymied!” was Mr. Treadgold’s comment as we found ourselves in the street again. “The old dog knows something, but he’s not telling.” He pulled at his mustache reflectively. “Aldini was stopping at the Rex, you say? Let’s see what the Club St. Pierre can tell us about him.” He hailed a passing taxi
The Club St. Pierre was new to me. “It derives its name from St. Peter, the head porter at the pearly gates,” said Mr. Treadgold in reply to my question. “Its membership is highly exclusive, being restricted to head porters of perhaps fifty of the leading hotels of England and the Continent. Hotel porters are important people, let me tell you; they make large incomes, and wield considerable power through the intimate contacts they enjoy with every class of citizen. The club premises are quite unpretentious; the importance of the organization lies in the secretary’s office, which is a veritable clearing house for confidential information about hotel guests exchanged between members in a dozen different countries. It happens that I was once in a position to render a small service to Strozzi, the permanent secretary and an ex-head porter himself. Let's see, therefore, what old Strozzi can produce about Mr. Bruno Aldini.”
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Half a dozen burly and somewhat pompous-looking individuals, easily identifiable as the hotel-porter type, were lounging in the club reading room where we were asked to wait while the secretary was fetched. At the sight of Mr. Treadgold. Strozzi, fat and brown-skinned, flung up his hands. “Dio mio, Meestair Treadgol’,” he cried, “I think I nevair see-a you again. My frien’, my frien’!” And he enfolded him in his arms.
With a dignified air Mr. Treadgold disengaged himself from the secretary’s embrace. “Strozzi,” he said, “I’ve called to ask you a service.”
“Tell me only and it is done, amico.” He led the way to the office. Over a glass of vermouth Mr. Treadgold said, “The head porter of the Rex, is he a member here?”
“Monsieur Adelmann? But certainly.”
“A man called Bruno Aldini has been staying at the Rex. I want a report on him.”
“Nothing is more simple, caro mio.” He twisted his head at the clock. “You give me till six, hein? and you shall ’ave your report.”
Eluding a pressing invitation to eat with him “the best gnocchi in Paris,” we left him. Danesworth had to go to his office; Mr. Treadgold carried me off to lunch at Versailles, protesting he must see the new restoration work on the Château. Danesworth was to meet us at the hotel at six. He was pacing the lobby when we arrived. “I’ve had a note from Gemma.” he exclaimed excitedly. “A cyclist picked it up yesterday in the forest of Fontaine-
bleau near Moret, but waited until this afternoon to bring it to my office, darn him.” He thrust a mud-stained envelope into Mr. Treadgold’s hand.
The envelope, which was addressed to the young man at his office on the Boulevard Haussmann, contained a scrap of glazed paper apparently torn from an advertisement, for there was print on the back. Hastily scrawled in pencil the note ran:
“Tuesday. Dear Jack: If you don’t hear from me by tomorrow, I want you to take charge of my ring. You will find it at . . . ”
The note ended there. It wras unsigned. “It’s her writing?” Mr. Treadgold enquired.
Young Danesworth nodded and exploded, “She’s been kidnapped, don’t you see? That note was thrown from a car, I guess.”
“Had she any friends at Fontainebleau?” “Not that I know of.”
Mr. Treadgold a letter. “We’ll open it
The report, in French, was admirably concise and marked “Private and Confidential.” We read:
“ALDINI, Bruno, thirty-two, Italian subject, born Naples, adventurer type, speaks English, French, Italian. First time at Rex. Arrived 12th August; left 10th October. Came from Lugano. Poor tipper. Owed four weeks before departure, when settled in cash. No bank account.
“Fréquentations. Mostly women. Assiduous in attentions to Miss Vandersly, American, who occupied royal suite with parents and returned to U. S. A. September; Lady Grace Garth, British, who was subsequently expelled from hotel and baggage detained for bill; Princess Malatesta, believed to be artist with studio in Paris. Men intimates: Dr. Benedetto, soi-disant
Italian journalist representing antiFascist newspapers in Paris, but reputed agent provocateur and police informer; Gerrit Vlaamsch, Belgian, formerly connected international espionage bureau. Brussels; Isidoro Tedeschi, exmember Black Hand, president anarchist club known as The Friends of Freedom, .with premises at 994, Avénue de la République, which Aldini frequently visits (taxi-driver reports).
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“No forwarding address. On leaving drove to P. L. M. railway terminus, where deposited luggage (report of taxidriver No. 14583).
“Summary. On your guard. No credit. Bad character.”
R. TREADGOLD laughed softly. “A full-length portrait, ’pon my word. Now we know why Hablard was so discreet this morning.”
“Why?” I demanded.
My friend tapped the document. “Look at the fellow’s friends—agents provocateurs, ex-spies, anarchists! Obviously, he’s a stool-pigeon, a copper’s nark, an informer!”
“But the police must know as much about him as the hotel does, H.B.?”
“If he’s working for the police, he’s scarcely likely to have kidnapped Gemma,” Danesworth struck in.
“No police force can afford to be squeamish as to the moral character of the spies they employ. And, answering your question, Jack, no crook even though he works for the police, would let that stop him from pulling off an easy job that turned up.” He shook his head. “I fear your little friend has fallen into bad hands, Jack, my boy.”
“The police have got to act,” the young man cried hotly. “Stool or not, we’ll make them run this rat to earth.”
“No,” was the firm rejoinder. “We’re going to handle this ourselves.” He glanced at the paper in his hand. “Does anything strike you about this report? Put your mind back to what Maria told us. She said the Malatestas were from Naples, as she herself is.”
“You mean, Aldini, too, according to the report, is a Neapolitan?” I put in.
“Quite, but also that Naples, before Mussolini broke up the Italian secret societies, was a stronghold of the Black Hand, of which, it says here, Isidoro Tedeschi, Aldini’s friend, was once a member. American gangsterdom is one of the offshoots of the Black Hand, which in its day was a murderous and terrible organization. Its specialty was kidnapping and holding for ransom, and if the princess is in the power of these ruffians ...” “But Gemma hasn’t any money,” Danesworth objected.
“She has a fifty-thousand-dollar ring.” “But her note makes it clear that she hasn’t got it with her.”
Mr. Treadgold looked grave. “That makes it worse for her. I fear they’ll find means of making her disclose what she’s done with it.”
Danesworth had grown pale. “That cursed ring!” he muttered. “It sounds crazy, I know, but I can’t help thinking of the legend.”
“Bah!” said Mr. Treadgold. “An old wives’ tale.”
“But her father ...”
“Coincidence, Jack.” He consulted his watch. “But we mustn’t waste time talking. That maid of hers was for a certainty in the plot. Let’s go and read the riot act to Maria.” His air was grim. “Excuse me a moment.” He disappeared into his bedroom.
Young Danesworth had his car outside, a smart eight-cylinder coupé, and within ten minutes we were climbing the stairs to the Princess Malatesta’s studio off the Boulevard Raspail. But the door remained obstinately closed to our ringing, and at last a bearded beldame wfio came wheezing up after us and proved to be the concierge, informed us that the place was
empty. The maid, she said, had returned at midday, loaded her trunk on a cab and departed.
“That one was taking no chances,” said Mr. Treadgold bleakly. “She came straight back from seeing us and hopped it. But where?”
Maria had left no address, the concierge confided. But she had overheard the maid tell the taximan to take her to the P. L. M. station.
“But that’s where Aldini left his luggage!” Danesworth cried eagerly.
“It’s likewise the station for Fontainebleau,” Mr. Treadgold pointed out.
“Then that’s where they’ve taken her.” the young man thundered. “Come on, let’s go to Fontainebleau!”
“Not so fast,” said my friend. “Fontainebleau’s a large order, especially if you reckon in the forest. Let’s see if we can’t narrow things down a bit. Maybe we might pick up a line at this anarchist club of Comrade Tedeschi’s.”
“Anything you like as long as we do something,” Danesworth declared impatiently. “Every minute we delay may make us too late. Come on, let’s go !”
Y\7ITH CONSIDERABLE difficulty, vv across two courts and up three flights of stairs, we located the headquarters of The Friends of Freedom in a gloomy tenement building in the swarming working-class quarter of the East of Paris. By this time it was half-past eight and darkness had fallen outside. In the trembling light of a gas jet at the top of the stairs we knocked and rang. But in vain. We could hear the bell pealing inside; but no light showed and the door remained fast.
Then, with the aid of a match, I discovered a strip of dirty paper gummed to the wall above the bell. “If closed.” the inscription ran in French, “apply to Tedeschi, Chalet des Papillons, Fontainebleau.”
“Aha!” Mr. Treadgold’s voice boomed triumphant in the obscurity. “The trail’s still warm. To Fontainebleau it is!”
By Route Nationale No. 5 Fontainebleau is thirty-five miles from Paris, and we made it in under the hour, with ten minutes to spare. Passing lights showed me my old friend’s usually beaming countenance set in hard lines, his blue eyes sternly veiled—this was not the Mr. Treadgold, deferential and debonair, as one was wont to see him in his oldfashioned showroom in Savile Row, expertly draping a length of gent’s trouserings about his portly leg for the benefit of some favored client. No more of his gently sardonic little jokes, no saws from his cherished “Tristram Shandy”—all his bulldog tenacity, his inexhaustible resourcefulness, had risen to the surface, and I knew from my experience of similar manhunts on which we had been engaged together in the past that nothing now would deflect him from his goal. We were rather crowded, the three of us, in the driving seat, for Mr. Treadgold’s girth is not inconsiderable, and a hard lump in the side pocket of his overcoat kept boring into my hip. He transferred the object to a breast pocket and I saw that it was an automatic; I realized why he had gone into his bedroom before we left the hotel. Somewhat anxiously, I wondered what the night would bring forth.
No one at Fontainebleau seemed ever to have heard of the Chalet des Papillons until a postman off duty encountered in a small café where we called to consult the directory, told us he knew the place, although he was under the impression that it was untenanted. Off the Moret road we should find it, a house standing alone on the outskirts of the forest on a track that ran right-handed from the clearing known as the Croix du Chevalier—the Route du Chevalier, they called it.
It was pitch dark with rain threatening as we ran into the forest. A lichen-encrusted cross marked the clearing where we had to turn off the main road, exchanging the smooth asphalt for loose sand and many ruts. Then in the glare of our headlamps we saw a shabby frame house that thrust a grey slate roof from the trees. As the postman had told us, it had no near neighbors. One could scarcely have found a lonelier spot, lapped, as it was, in the forest stillness.
The chalet, flush with the road from which it was separated by a dilapidated fence, was dark, with every window shuttered. Danesworth backed the car out of sight behind some bushes and switched off the lights; then we went and st)d on the road, peering over the fence at the villa. There was not a sound. I must say that Donna Laura’s malediction was strong in my mind as we lingered there, and I quailed at the thought of what horror might not be waiting for us within that silent house.
Mr. Treadgold was the first to stir out of our inaction. With a resolute air he opened the gate, tried the front door and, finding it sluit, fumbled at the shutter of the ground-floor window beside it. The shutter swung back, and with his knife he attacked the window catch inside. The next thing I knew the window was open and his bulky form perched on the sill. Noiselessly he stepped down into the room beyond.
We followed after. The place reeked of stale cigar smoke: a match which our leader scratched showed a small dining room with the remains of a meal on the table.
“At least, the nest’s warm,” Mr. Treadgold whispered and opened the door.
At that moment a sound broke the stagnant hush, a whimpering wail. It was the sound of a woman crying, and it came from the upper floor. Roughly elbowing Mr. Treadgold aside, young Danesworth sprang past him through the door and into the hall that lay beyond, and we heard his feet thunder on the stairs. We ran out after him and were at the foot of the flight when, without warning, the hall was flooded with light and a voice, raucous with excitement, screamed out behind us, 'Haut les mains!”
MR. TREADGOLD has a hair-trigger brain. He must have fired through his overcoat for the roar of the report drowned the summons as a pistol clattered to the floor and our assailant, a pallid little man wearing a black felt hat, with a howl of pain clawed at his wrist. I dived for the gun as it lay on the ground. At the same instant a series of tremendous crashes reverberated from above, punctuated by young Danesworth’s voice calling frantically, “Gemma, Gemma, where are you?”
Mr. Treadgold had our man by the throat. “Where’s the Princess Malatesta?” he growled, shaking his captive. Unable to speak, the latter jerked his head in the direction of the upper floor. “And Aldini?” “Gone with the others to Paris.”
“Tedeschi and the woman.”
“Maria, the maid?” The man nodded. “What have they gone to Paris for? To get the ring, is it?” The other hesitated, then screamed aloud as the grip on his throat was tightened. “Where is the ring? Answer me. you rat!” Mr. Treadgold trumpeted.
“At her studio, she says. Maria ransacked the place without finding it—she told us when she came out here this afternoon. Then the princess confessed she’d hidden it in a book.”
The blue eyes blazed. “Confessed? You mean ...” Once more his fingers twined themselves about the skinny throat. The man howled with fear. “It was Tedeschi —Tedeschi and Aldini, monsieur. I’d no hand in it, I swear!’’
Mr. Treadgold glanced about him. “Open that door!” he bade me, pointing to a cupboard under the stairs. I complied and with a vigorous thrust he sent his victim spinning into the cavity, slammed the door and shut the bolt. Then he rushed upstairs, I at his heels.
A light now burned on the first landing. A door with splintered lock stood wide. Within the room, sparsely furnished as a bedroom, young Danesworth sat on the bed, his arm about a girl whose head was pillowed on his shoulder. Some lengths of rope lay about the floor.
“Aldini kidnapped her,” said Danesworth in a hushed voice. “After leaving me on Tuesday she met him for tea. He hocussed her drink, I guess, for the next thing she knew she found herself in a car with Aldini and two strange men driving through the forest of Fontainebleau. They wanted to know what she had done with the ring, and when she refused to tell them they became so menacing that she scrawled that note to me under the rug. She didn’t have time to finish it. However, she was able to stick what she’d written in an envelope she had already addressed to me, and drop it out of the window.”
He ground his teeth savagely. “When Maria arrived this afternoon to say that the diamond was nowhere at the studio, they burned her hands with cigarettes to make her confess what she’d done with the ring. She’d scooped a hole out of an old telephone directory at the studio and stuck it there. Once they’d dragged the truth out of her, they tied her up and left this guy, Vlaamsch, whose name’s in that report, to guard her. What’s become of him, by the way? That shot we heard ...” “He won’t trouble us,” Mr. Treadgold informed him. “But the ring’s gone by this, Jack. Aldini, Tedeschi and the maid have gone to Paris to recover it.”
The girl had opened her eyes and was listening to us. “They’ll be back,” she said. “They promised to pick up this man Vlaamsch and take him with them to Havre, where the four of them are booked on a steamer leaving for Rio at midnight—
I heard them talking about it.”
Danesworth became very excited. “By George, if we handle this right, they’ll walk straight into our hands.”
The princess shook her head. “No, Jack,” she said, “we’ll let the ring go. It’s brought nothing but bad luck.”
“Listen !”Mr. Treadgold warned sharply.
TN THE SILENCE that fell, we all heard the sound of a car stopping beneath the window. Drawing his gun. Mr. Treadgold dashed out on the landing, Danesworth and I close behind. Even as we reached the head of the stairs we caught the sound of a key in the lock of the front door, the door was opened, revealing the dark figure of a man. Instantly, the door was violently slammed.
“Stay with the girl !” Mr. Treadgold shouted over his shoulder to Danesworth, and set off in pursuit.
Outside, a big white roadster, lights blazing, was backing to turn. But at the sight of us the driver desisted and, with a spin of the wheel, sent the car lurching off along the rough forest track. In a fleeting glimpse I had of the car in the reflected glow of its headlights, I perceived a man and woman in the driving seat, while a second man was on the running board, clambering into the rear. Mr. Treadgold shouted “ Halle!” then fired. But he had not waited to put on his glasses and the shots went wild. He ran to our coupé; the motor roared into life. Ahead a diminishing ruby pinpoint marked the fleeing car.
A thin drizzle of rain had begun to fall.
It was a terrible road, soft and treacherous, winding its way in and out of the sandstone boulders which are dotted all through the forest, now topping a precipitous rise, now dropping to a boggy bottom. On that surface speed was out of the question. Moreover, it was obvious that the fugitives knew the road; at any rate, the ruby gleam we were following was soon lost to our sight. “Let’s hope this leads us back to the main road,” Mr. Treadgold muttered. “On the tarmac we ought to be able to catch up with them.”
His hope was fulfilled. The ruby pinpoint was again in sight as we swung out on the Route Nationale. The downpour increased, the roadway was like black glass, but my friend relentlessly drove the accelerator home. Steadily the speedometer needle climbed. The red light we were chasing grew larger. But was it the right car? The lights of a service station ahead flashing on a long white chassis, on a pale blur of a face anxiously turned backward, answered the question.
We were gaining. Now the twin beam of our headlamps glinted on the screen of the car ahead. I could see an arm flourished from the rear seat, encouraging the driver to greater effort. Then with lightning speed disaster struck. I heard the scream of brakes ahead, the rip and clang of shivered metal, a tense ejaculation from my companion as our car slithered, spun round. Something struck me on the head —I saw a great burst of light . . .
7 HEN I recovered my senses, someW one was bathing my face as I lay on the sopping grass. There was a sort of diffused radiance all about, and by its light I distinguished Mr. Treadgold on his knees at my side. “What happened?” I asked confusedly.
“Level crossing round a bend,” he replied. “The gates were down and they saw them too late. They skidded and went clean through an iron picket fence into the river, a sixty-foot drop. We were luckier. We skidded too, but after two complete spins I managed to steady her and we landed up against a tree. I fancy a branch must have taken you on the side of the head. No bones broken, are there, old man?”
I sat up. Our car was wedged against one of the roadside poplars, but the headlamps still blazed. Their glow disclosed Mr. Treadgold, his overcoat and trousers liberally besmeared with mud, gazing solicitously at me. “I’m all right, except my head’s buzzing. How about you?”
“Not a scratch.” He paused. “The other car’s at the bottom of the river. They were all flung out. Tedeschi escaped with a broken collarbone. But Aldini and the woman are dead. They went through the screen.”
“And the ring?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Maria was ' wearing it. Tedeschi says. It was she who first put him and Aldini onto the diamond —her father and brothers all belonged to the Black Hand—and she wasn’t letting it out of her sight. But it wasn’t on her finger when we took her out of the water, and there’s no sign of it on Aldini or on Tedeschi. either—I searched him myself. I guess it’s reposing somewhere on the river bed. Much luck it brought them. You should see the woman, poor wretch. She’s terribly mutilated; her head was practically severed.”
I stared at him aghast. “Her head was practically severed, H.B.?”
He looked at me hard. “That’s what I
“But. man. the legend!”
“As I told you before, an old wives’ tale.” “But this is the most amazing thing I ever heard. How do you account for it?” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “I don’t try to. Or rather I propose, as is written somewhere in ‘Tristram Shandy,’ to halve the matter amicably, leaving you in your turn something to imagine as well as myself. And now, if you feel up to it, let’s go as far as the crossing keeper’s hut and see what we can do about raising a conveyance back to Fontainebleau.”