Saturday, June 22, 2013

"The Diamond Wager" by Samuel Dashiell (Hammett?) Read it here!

Editor's Note: This story appeared in the October 19, 1929 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly, and is believed to have been written by Samuel Dashiell Hammett. It has never been reprinted in any Hammett collection, and no notice of copyright renewal has been found.

If this was truly written by Hammett, it's far from his best work. But the diamond angle is interesting, because in 1926 and 1927 he worked for Samuel's Jewelers of San Francisco writing advertising copy. Hammett scholar Vince Emery thinks the story was meant as a satire, poking fun at the mystery sub-genre featuring courtly gentlemen thieves. I have no argument with that. On with the tale . . .




I always knew West was eccentric.
Ever since the days of our youth, in various universities—for we seemed destined to follow each other about the globe—I had known Alexander West to be a person of the most bizarre, though not unattractive, personality. At Heidelberg, where he renounced water as a beverage; at Pisa, where he affected a one-piece garment for months; at the Sorbonne, where he consorted with the most notorious characters, boasting an acquaintance with Le Grand Raoul, an unspeakable ruffian of La Villette.
And in later life, when we met in Constantinople, where West was American minister, I found that his idiosyncrasies were common topics in the diplomatic corps. In the then Turkish capital I naturally dined with West at the Legation, and except for his pointed beard and Prussian mustache, being somewhat more gray, I found him the same tall, courtly figure, with a keen brown eye and the hands of generations, an aristocrat.
But his eccentricities were then of more refined fantasy. No more baths in snow, no more beer orgies, no more Libyan negroes opening the door, no more strange diets. At the Legation, West specialized in rugs and gems. He had a museum in carpets. He had even abandoned his old practice of having the valet call him every morning at eight o’clock with a gramophone record.
I left the Legation thinking West had reformed. “Rugs and precious stones,” I reflected; “that’s such a banal combination for West.” Although I did recall that he had told me he was doing something strange with a boat on the Bosporus; but I neglected to inquire about the details. It was something in connection with work, as he had said, “Everybody has a pleasure boat; I have a work boat, where I can be alone.” But that is all I retained concerning this freak of his mind.
It was some years later, however, when West had retired from diplomacy, that he turned up in my Paris apartment, a little grayer, straight and keen as usual, but with his beard a trifle less pointed—and, let’s say, a trifle less distinguished-looking. He looked more the successful business man than the traditional diplomat. It was a cold, blustery night, so I bade West sit down by my fire and tell me of his adventures; for I knew he had not been idle since leaving Constantinople.
“No, I am not doing anything,” he answered, after a pause, in reply to my question as to his present activities. “Just resting and laughing to myself over a little prank I played on a friend.”
“Oho!” I declared; “so you’re going in for pranks now.”
He laughed heartily. I could hardly see West as a practical joker. That was one thing out of his line. As he held his long, thin hands together, I noticed an exceptionally fine diamond ring on his left hand. It was of an unusual luster, deep set in gold, flush with the cutting. His quick eye caught me looking at this ornament. As I recall, West had never affected jewelry of any kind.
“Oh, yes, you are wondering about this,” he said, gazing into the crystal. “Fine yellow diamond; not so rare, but unusual, set in gold, which they are not wearing any longer. A little present.” He repeated blandly, after a pause, “A little present for stealing.”
“For stealing?” I inquired, astonished. I could hardly believe West would steal. He would not play practical jokes, and he would not steal.
“Yes,” he drawled, leaning back away from the fire. “I had to steal about four million francs—that is, four million francs’ worth of jewels.” He noted the effect on me, and went on in a matter-of-fact way: “Yes, I stole it, stole it all. Got the police all upset; got stories in the newspapers. They referred to me as a super-thief, a master criminal, a malefactor, a crook, and an organized gang. But I proved my case. I lifted four million from a Paris jeweler, walked around town with it, gave my victim an uncomfortable night, and walked in his store the next day between rows of wise gentlemen, gave him back his paltry four million, and collected my bet, which is this ring you see here.”
West paused and chuckled softly to himself, still apparently getting the utmost out of this late escapade in burglary. Of course, I remembered only recently seeing in the newspapers how some clever gentleman cracksman had succeeded in a fantastic robbery in the Rue de la Paix, Paris, but I had not read the details.
I was genuinely curious. This was, indeed, West in his true character. But to go in for deliberate and probably dangerous burglary was something which I considered required a little friendly counsel on my part. West anticipated my difficulty in broaching the subject.
“Don’t worry, old man. I pinched the stuff from a good friend of ours, really a pal, so if I had been caught it would have been fixed up, except I would have lost my bet.”
He looked at the yellow diamond.
“But don’t you realize what would have happened if you had been caught?” I asked. “Prank or not, your name would have been aired in the newspapers—a former American minister guilty of grand larceny; an arrest; a day or so in jail; sensation; talk, ruinous gossip!”
He only laughed the more. He held up an arresting hand. “Please don’t call me an amateur. I did the most professional job that the Rue de la Paix has seen in years.”
I believe he was really proud of this burglary.
West gazed reflectively into the fire. “But I wouldn’t do it again—not for a dozen rings.” He watched the firelight dance in the pure crystal of the stone on his finger. “Poor old Berthier, he was wild! He came to see me the night I lifted the diamonds, four million francs’ worth, mind you, and they were in my pocket at the time. He asked me to accompany him to the store and go over the scene.
“He said perhaps I might prove cleverer than detectives, whom he was satisfied were a lot of idiots. I told him I would come over the next day, because, according to the terms of our wager, I was to keep the jewels for more than twenty-four hours. I returned the next day, and handed them to him in his upstairs office. The poor wretch that I took them from was downstairs busy reconstructing the ‘crime’ with those astute gentlemen, the detectives, and I’ve no doubt that they would eventually have caught me, for you don’t get away with robbery in France. They catch you in the end. Fortunately I made the terms of my wager to fit the conditions.”
West leaned back and blinked satisfyingly at the ceiling, tapping his finger tips together. “Poor old Berthier,” he mused. “He was wild.”
As soon as West had mentioned that his victim was a mutual friend, I had thought of Berthier. Moreover, Berthier’s was one of those establishments in which a four-million-franc purchase or a theft of the same size might not seem so unusual. West interrupted my thoughts concerning Berthier.
“I made Berthier promise that he would not dismiss any employee. That also was in the terms of our wager, because I dealt directly with Armand, the head salesman and a trusted employee. It was Armand who delivered the stones.” West leaned nearer, his brown eyes squinting at me as if in defense of any reprehension I might impute to him. “You see, I did it, not so much as a wager, but to teach Berthier a lesson. Berthier is responsible for his store, he is the principal shareholder, the administration is his own, it was he and it was his negligence in not rigidly enforcing more elementary principals of safety that made the theft possible.” He turned the yellow diamond around on his finger. “This thing is nothing, compared to the value of the lesson he learned.”
West stroked his stubby beard. He chuckled. “It did cost me some of my beard. A hotel suite, an old trunk, a real Russian prince, a fake Egyptian prince, a would-be princess, a first-class reservation to Egypt, a convenient bathroom, running water and soapsuds. Poor old Armand, who brought the gems—he and his armed assistants—they must have almost fainted when, after waiting probably a good half hour, all they found in exchange for a four-million-franc necklace was a cheap bearskin coat, a broad brimmed hat, and some old clothes.”
I must admit that I was growing curious. It was about a week ago when I had seen this sensational story in the newspapers. I knew West had come to tell me about it, as he had so often related to me his various escapades, and I was getting restive. Moreover, I knew Berthier well, and I could readily imagine the state of his mind on the day of the missing diamonds.
I had a bottle of 1848 cognac brought up, and we both settled down to the inner warmth of this most friendly of elixirs.

II

“You see,” West began, with this habitual phrase of his, “I had always been a good customer of Berthier’s. I have bought trinkets from Berthier’s both in New York and Paris since I was a boy. And in getting around as I did in various diplomatic posts, I naturally sent Berthier many wealthy clients. I got him the work on two very important crown jewel commissions; I sent him princes and magnates; and of course he always wanted to make me a present, knowing well that the idea of a commission was out of question.
“One day not long ago I was in Berthier’s with a friend who was buying some sapphires and platinum and a lot of that atrocious modern jewelry for his new wife. Berthier offered me this yellow diamond then as a present, for I had always admired it, but never felt quite able to buy it, and knowing at the same time that even if I did buy it he would have marked the price so low as to be embarrassing.
“However, we compromised by dining together that night in Ciro’s; and there he pointed out to me the various personalities of that international crowd who wear genuine stones. ‘I can’t understand,’ Berthier said, after a comprehensive observation of the clientele, ‘how all these women are not robbed even more regularly than they are. Even we jewelers, with all our protective systems, are not safe from burglary.’
“Berthier then went on to tell me of some miserable wretch who, only the day before, had smashed a show window down the street and filched several big stones. ‘A messy job,’ he commented, and he informed me that the police soon apprehended this window burglar.
“He continued, with smug assurance: ‘It’s pretty hard for a street burglar to get away with anything these days. It’s the other kind,’ he added, ‘the plausible kind, the apparently rich customer, the clever, ingenious stranger, with whom we cannot cope.’ ”
When West mentioned this “clever, ingenious stranger,” I had a mental picture of him stepping into just such a rôle for his robber of Berthier’s; but I made no comment, and let him go on with his story.
“You see, I had always contended the same thing. I had always held that jewelers and bankers show only primitive intelligence in arranging their protective schemes, dealing always with the hypothetical street robbery, the second story man, the gun runner, while they invariably go on for years unprotected against these plausible gentlemen who, in the long run, are the worst offenders. They get millions where the common thief gets thousands.
“I might have been a bit vexed at Berthier’s cocksureness,” West continued by way of explanation, “but you see, I am a shareholder in a bank that was once beautifully swindled, so I let Berthier have it straight from the shoulder.
“ ‘You fellows deserve to be robbed,’ I said to Berthier. ‘You fall for such obvious gags.’
“Berthier protested. I asked him about the little job they put over on the Paris house of Kerstner Freres. He shrugged his shoulders. It seems that a nice gentleman who said he was a Swiss,” West explained, “wanted to match an emerald pendant that he had, in order to make up a set of earrings. Kerstners’ had difficulty in matching the emerald which the nice Swiss gentleman had ordered them to purchase at any price.
“After a search Kerstners’ found the stone and bought it at an exorbitant price. They had simply bought the same emerald. Of course, the gentleman only made a mere hundred thousand francs, a simple trick that has been worked over and over again in various forms.
“When I related this story, Berthier retorted with some scorn to the effect that no sensible house would fall for such an old dodge as that. I then asked Berthier about that absurd robbery that happened only a year ago at Latour’s, which is a very ‘sensible’ house and incidentally Berthier’s chief competitor.”
West asked me if I knew about this robbery. I assured him I did, inasmuch as all Paris had laughed, for the joke was certainly on the prefect of police. On the new prefect’s first day in office some ingenious thief had contrived to have a whole tray of diamond rings sent under guard to the prefect, from which he was to choose one for an engagement present for his recently announced fiancée.
The thief impersonated a clerk right in the prefect’s inner waiting room, and, surrounded by police, he took the tray into the prefect’s office, excused himself for blundering into the wrong room, slipped the tray under his coat, walked back to the waiting room, and after assuring the jeweler’s representatives that they wouldn’t have to wait long, he disappeared. Fortunately, the thief was arrested the following day in Lyons.
West laughed heartily as he talked over the unique details of this robbery. I poured out some cognac. “Well, my genteel burglar,” I pursued, “that doesn’t yet explain how you yourself turned thief and lifted four millions.”
“Very simple,” West replied. “Berthier was almost impertinent in his self-assurance that no once could rob Berthier’s. ‘Not even the most fashionably dressed gentleman nor the most plausible prince could trick Berthier’s,’ he asserted with some vigor. Then he assured me, as if it were a great secret, ‘Berthier never delivers jewels against a check until the bank reports the funds.’
“ ‘There are always loopholes,’ I rejoined, but Berthier argued stupidly that it was impossible. His boastful attitude annoyed me.
“I looked him straight in the eye. ‘I’ll bet you, if were a burglar, I could clean your place out.’ Berthier laughed in that jerky, nervous way of his. ‘I’d pay you to rob me,’ he said. ‘You needn’t; but I’ll do it anyway,’ I told him.
“Berthier thought a bit. ‘I’ll bet you that yellow diamond that you couldn’t steal so much as a baby’s bracelet from Berthier’s.’ ‘I’ll be you I can steal a million,’ I said.
“ ‘It’s a go,’ said Berthier, shaking my hand. ‘The yellow diamond is yours if you steal anything and get away with it.’
“ ‘Perhaps three or four million,’ I said.
“ ‘It’s a bet, steal anything you want,’ Berthier agreed.
“ ‘I’ll teach you smart Rue de la Paix jewelers a lesson,’ I informed him.
“Accordingly, over our coffee, we arranged the terms of our wager, and I suppose Berthier promptly forgot about it.”
West sipped his cognac thoughtfully before restoring the glass to the mantel, and then went on:
“The robbery was so easy to plan, yet I must admit that it had many complications. I had always said that the plausible gentleman was the loophole, so I looked up my old friend Prince Meyeroff, who is always buying and selling and exchanging jewels. It’s a mania with him. I had exchanged a few odd gems with him in Constantinople, as he considered me a fellow connoisseur.
“I found him in Paris, and soon talked him into the mood to buy a necklace. In fact, he had disposed of some old family pieces, and was actually meditating an expensive gift for his favorite niece.
“I explained to the prince that I had a little deal on, and asked him to let me act as his buyer. I had special reasons. Moreover, he was one of my closest friends back in St. Petersburg. Meyeroff said he would allow me a credit up to eight hundred thousand francs for something very suitable for this young woman who was marrying into the old French nobility.
“I told the prince to go to Berthier’s and choose a necklace, approximating his price, but to underbid on it. I would then go in and buy it at the price contemplated.
“I figured this would give them just the amount of confidence in me that would be required to carry off a bigger affair that I was thinking of.
“Meanwhile I bethought myself of a disguise. I let my beard grow somewhat to the sides and cut off the point. I affected a broad-brimmed, low-crowned hat, and a half-length bearskin coat. I then braced up my trousers almost to my ankles. Some days later—in fact, it was just over a week ago—I went to Berthier’s, after I ascertained that Berthier himself was in London. I informed them I wanted to buy a gift or two in diamonds, and it was not many minutes before I had shown the clerks that money was no object with me.
“They brought me out a most bewitching array of necklaces, tiaras, collars, bracelets, rings. A king’s ransom lay before my eyes. Of course, I fell in love with a beautiful flat stone necklace of Indian diamonds with an enormous square pendant. I fondled it, held it up, almost wept over it, but decided, alas that I could not buy it. Four million francs, the salesman, Armand, had said. I shook my head sadly. Too expensive for me. But how I loved it!
“I finally decided that a smaller one would be very nice. It was the one with a gorgeous emerald pendant, en cabochon, which Prince Meyeroff had seen and described to me. I asked the price.
“Armand demurred. ‘You have chosen the same one that great connoisseur has admired. Prince Meyeroff wanted it, but it was a question of price.’
“ ‘How much?’ I asked.
“ ‘Eight hundred thousand francs.’
“Of course, I was buying for the prince, so with a great flourish of opulence I arranged to buy the smaller necklace, though I continued flirting with that handsome Indian string. I assumed the name of Hazim, gave my home town as Cairo, and my present address a prominent hotel in the Rue de Rivoli.
“I ordered a different clasp put on the necklace, and departed for my bank, declaring I was expecting a draft from Egypt. I then went to my apartment, sent to the hotel an old trunk full of cast-off clothes, from which I carefully removed the labels. My beard was proving most disciplined, rounding my face out nicely. Picture yourself the flat hat, the bulgy fur coat, my trousers pulled up toward the ankles!

III

“I returned to Berthier’s next day and bought the necklace for Meyeroff. I paid them out of a bag, eight hundred thousand francs, and received a receipt made out to Mr. Hazim of Cairo and the Rue de Rivoli. I again looked longingly at the Indian necklace. I casually mentioned what a delight it would be for my daughter who was engaged to an Egyptian prince.
“ ‘I must get her something,’ I told Berthier’s man. He tried all his arts on me. Four million was not too much for an Egyptian princess, and in Egypt, where they wear stones. He emphasized the last phrase. I hesitated, but went out with my little necklace, saying I’d see later.
“I had a hired automobile of enormous proportions waiting outside, which must at least have impressed the doorman at Berthier’s, whom I had passed many times in the past, but who failed to recognize me in this changed get-up. You see, Egyptians don’t understand this northern climate, and are inclined to dress oddly.
“I then went to my hotel and made plans for stealing that four-million-franc necklace. In the hotel I was regarded as a bit of an eccentric, so no one bothered me. I had two rooms and a bath. Flush against the wall of my salon, toward the bath, I placed a small square table. I own a beautifully inlaid Louis XVI glove box which, curiously, opens both at the top and at the ends. The ends hinge onto the bottom and are secured by little gadgets at the side, stuck in the plush lining. It makes an admirable jewel case, especially for necklaces; and, moreover, it was just the thing I needed for my robbery. I placed this box on the little table with the end flush against the wall.
“It looked simple. With a hole in the wall fitting the end of the glove box, I could easily contrive to pull down the shutterlike end and draw the contents through the wall into the bathroom.
“Being a building of modern construction, it would not require much work to punch a hole through the plaster and terra cotta with a drill-bit. I decided on that plan, for the robbery was to take place precisely at three o’clock the following afternoon and in my own rooms.
“That afternoon I decided to buy the Indian necklace. I passed by Berthier’s and allowed myself to be tempted by the salesman Armand. ‘I can’t really pay so much for a wedding gift,’ I said, ‘but the prince is very rich.’ I told Armand that naturally I felt a certain pride about the gift I should give my daughter under such special circumstances.
“Armand held up the gorgeous necklace, letting the lights play on the great square pendant. ‘Anyway, sir, the princess will always have the guarantee of the value of the stones. That is true of any diamond purchased at Berthier’s.’
“And with that thought, I yielded. I asked for the telephone, saying I must call my bank and arrange for the transfer of funds. That also was simple. I had previously arranged with Judd, my valet, to be in a hotel off the Grands Boulevards, and pretend he was a banker if I should telephone him and ask him to transfer money from my various holdings.”
West interrupted his narrative, gulping down the remainder of the cognac. The wrinkles about his eyes narrowed in a burst of merriment.
“It was really cute,” he continued. “I telephoned from Berthier’s own office, asking for this hotel number on the Elysee exchange. Naturally no one remembers all the bank telephone numbers in Paris, and when Judd answered the telephone his deferential tones might have been those of an accredited banker.
“ ‘Four million to-morrow,’ I said, ‘and I’ll leave the transfer to your judgment. I want the money in thousands in a sack. I’ll come with Judd, so you won’t need to worry about holding a messenger to accompany me. I am only going as far as Berthier’s. It’s a wedding gift for my daughter.’
“Judd must have thought me crazy, although it would take a lot to surprise him.
“Armand listened to the conversation. Two other clerks heard it, and later I was bowed out to the street, where my enormous hired car awaited. My next job was to get a tentative reservation on the Latunia, which was leaving Genoa for Alexandria the following day. Prince Hazim, I called myself at the steamship office. This was for Berthier’s benefit, in case they should check up on my sailing. Then I went to work.
“I went to the hotel and drew out a square on the wall, tracing it thinly around the end of the box. I slept that night in the hotel. In the morning I arose at nine o’clock, paid my bill, and told the hotel clerk I was leaving that evening for Genoa.
“I called at Berthier’s still wearing the same bearskin coat and flat hat, and assured myself that the necklace was in order. Armand showed it to me in a handsome blue morocco case, which made me a bit apprehensive. He was profoundly courteous.
“I objected to the blue box, but added that it would do for a container later on, as I had an antique case to transport both the necklaces I was taking with me. I told him of my hasty change of plans. Urgent business, I said, in Egypt.
“Armand was sympathetic. I promised to return at three o’clock with the money. I went to the hotel and ordered lunch and locked the doors. I had sent Judd away after he had brought me some tools. It was but the work of fifteen minutes to cut my square hole through the plaster. I wore out about a dozen drills, however, getting through that brittle terra cotta tile.
“At one o’clock, when the lunch came up, I had the hole neatly through to the bathroom. I covered it with a towel on that side, and in the salon I backed a chair against it over which I threw an old dressing gown.
“I quickly disposed of the waiter, locked the door, and replaced the table at the wall. Taking out the necklace I had bought for Prince Meyeroff, I laid it doubled in the glove box. It was a caged rainbow, lying on the rose-colored plush lining. The box I stuck flush with the square aperture.
“I had provided myself with a stiff piece of wire something like an elongated buttonhook. A warped piece of mother-of-pearl inlay provided a perfect catch with which to pull down the end of box.
“I tried the invention from the bathroom. I had overlooked one thing. I forgot that when the hole was stopped up by the box it would be dark. Thanks to my cigarette lighter, I could see to pull down the hinged end and draw out the jewels. I tried it. The hook brought down the end without a sound. I could see the stones glowing in the flickering light of the briquet. I began fishing with the hook, and the necklace with its rounded emerald slid out as if by magic.
“I fancied they might make a grating sound in the other room, so I padded the hole with a napkin. I’ll cough out loud, or sing, or whistle, I said to myself. Then I thought of the bath water. I turned on the tap full force; the water ran furiously. I walked into the salon, swinging the prince’s necklace in my hand; the water was making a terrific uproar. Satisfied as to this strategy, I turned off the water.
“But what to do to disguise the box at the close fitting square hole still bothered me. My time was getting short. I must do some important telephoning to Berthier’s. I must try the outer door from the bedroom into the hall. I must have my travel cap ready and my long traveling coat across the foot of the bed. I must let down my trousers to the customary length. I must get ready my shaving brush.
“It was five minutes to three. They were expecting me at Berthier’s with four million francs. Armand was probably at this moment rubbing his hands, observing with satisfaction that suave face of his in the mirrors.
“Still there was that telltale, ill-fitting edge of the hole about the box. I discovered the prince’s necklace was still hanging from my hand. It gave me quite a surprise. I realized this was a ticklish business, this robbing of the most ancient house in the Rue de la Paix. I laid the necklace in the box, closing the end. The hole was ugly, although the bits of paint and plaster had been well cleaned up from the floor.
“I had a stroke of genius. My flat black hat! I would lay it on its crown in front of the hole, with a big silk muffler carelessly thrown against it, shutting off any view of the trap. I tried that plan, placing the box near the side of the hat. It looked like any casual litter of objects. My old trunk was on the other side of the table to be sacrificed with its old clothes as necessary stage properties.
“I then tried the camouflage. I picked up the box, walked to the center of the room. The hat and muffler concealed the hole. I then walked to the table and replaced the box, this time casually alongside the hat, deftly putting the end in the hole. The hat moved only a few inches and the muffler hung over the brim, perfectly hiding and shadowing the trap, though most of box was clearly visible. It looked perfectly natural. I then placed the box farther out, moved the hat against the hole, and the trap was arranged.
“Now to try my experiment in human credulity. I telephoned Berthier’s. Armand came immediately. ‘Hazim,’ I said. ‘I wish to ask you a favor.’ Armand recognized my voice, and inquired if I were carrying myself well. ‘My dear friend,’ I began in English, ‘I have found that the Genoa train leaves at five o’clock, and I am in a dreadful rush and am not half packed. I have the money here in my hotel. Could you conceivably bring me the necklace and collect the money here? I would help me tremendously.’
“I also suggested that Armand bring some one with him for safety’s sake, as four million in notes, which had to be expedited through two branch banks, was not an affair to treat lightly. Some one might know about it. I knew Berthier’s would certainly have Armand guarded, with one or perhaps two assistants.
“Armand was audibly distressed, and asked me to wait. It seemed like an hour before the response came. ‘Yes, Mr. Hazim, we shall be pleased to deliver the necklace on receipt of the funds. I shall come with a man from our regular service and will have the statement ready to sign.’
“I urged him to hurry, and said I would be glad to turn over the money, as the presence of such an amount in my rooms made me nervous.
“That was exactly three fifteen. I quickly arranged the chairs so two or three would have to sit well away from the table. I opened the trunk as if I were packing. I telephoned the clerk to be sure to send my visitors to the salon door of my suite.
“My cap and long coat were ready in the bedroom. The door into the hall was almost closed, but not latched, so I would not have to turn the knob. I quickly removed my coat and vest, and laid them on a chair in the bedroom, ready to spring into. I wore a shirt with a soft collar attached. I removed my ready tied cravat and hung it over a towel rack and turned my collar inside very carelessly as if for shaving purposes.
“In the bowl I prepared some shaving lather, and when that was all ready I was all set for making off with the prince’s necklace and that other one—if it came.
“I’ll admit I was nervous. I was considering the whole plot as a rather absurd enterprise, and all I could think of was the probably alert eyes and ears of the two or more suspicious employees on the glove box.

IV

 They arrived at twenty-five minutes to four. There were only two of them. I hastily lathered the edges of my spreading beard, and called out sharply for them to enter. The boy showed in Armand and a dapper individual who was evidently a house detective of Berthier’s. Armand was all solicitude. I shook hands with him with two dry fingers, holding a towel with the other hand, as I had wished to make it apparent that I was deep in a shaving operation.
“ ‘Just edging off my beard a little.’
“The two men were quite complacent.
“ ‘And the necklace?’ I asked eagerly.
“Armand drew the case from inside his coat and opened it before my eyes. We all moved toward the window. I was effusive in my admiration of the gems. I fluttered about much like the old fool that I probably am, and finally urged them to sit down.
“I then brought the glove box and showed the prince’s necklace to both of them, and continued raving about both necklaces.
“We compared the two. The Indian was, of course, even more magnificent by contrast. The detective laid the smaller necklace back in the box, while I asked Armand to lay the big one over it in the box into which I was going to pack some cotton. My glove box was smaller and therefore easier and safer to carry, I said. I held the box open while Armand laid the necklace gingerly inside. I was careful to avoid getting soap on the box, so I replaced it gently on the table near the hat, getting the end squarely against the hole. It seemed I had plenty of time.
“I even lingered over the box and wiped off a wayward fleck of soap-suds. The trap was set. I could not believe that the rest would be so easy, and I had to make an effort to conceal my nervousness.
“The two men sat near each other. I explained that as soon as I could clear the soap off my face I would get the sack of money and transact the business. I took Armand’s blue box from Berthier’s and threw it in the top tray of the trunk. They appeared to be the most unsuspecting creatures. They took proffered cigarettes and lighted up, whereupon I went directly into the bathroom, still carrying my towel. I dropped that towel. My briquet was there on the washstand. I hummed lightly as I turned on the hot water in the tub. It spouted out in a steaming, gushing stream. Quickly I held the lighted briquet at the hole, caught the gleam of the warped mother-of-pearl, and pulled at it with the wire.
“It brought the end down noiselessly on the folded napkin in the hole. The jewels blazed like fire. My hand shook as I made one savage jab at the pile with the long hook and felt the ineffable resistance of the two necklaces being pulled out together. I was afraid I might have to hook one at a time, but I caught just the right loops, and they came forward almost noiselessly along the napkin to where my left hand waited.
“I touched the first stone. It was the big necklace, the smaller one being underneath. My heart leaped as I saw the big pendant on one side of the heap not far from the cabochon emerald. I laid down the wire and drew them out deftly with my fingers, the gems piling richly in my spread-out left hand, until the glittering pile was free. I thrust them with one movement of my clutching fingers deep into the left pocket of my trousers. The water was churning in my ears like a cascade.
“I shut off the tap and purposely knocked the soap into the tub to make a noise, and walked into the bedroom, grabbing my cravat off the rack as I went. That was a glorious moment. The bedroom was dark. The door was unlatched. The diamonds were in my pocket. The way was clear.
“I pulled up my shirt collar, stuck on the cravat, and fixed it neatly as I reached the chair where my coat and vest lay. I plunged into them, buttoned the vest with one hand, and reached for my long coat and cap with the other. In a second I was slipping noiselessly through the door into the hall, my cap on my head, my coat over my arm.
“I had to restrain myself from running down that hall. I was in flight. It was a great thrill, to be moving away, each second taking me farther away from the enemy in that salon. Even if they are investigating at this moment, I thought, I should escape easily.
“I was gliding down those six flights of steps gleefully, released from the most tense moments I have ever gone through, when suddenly a horrible thought assailed me. What if Berthier’s had posted a detective at the hotel door. I could see my plans crashing ignominiously. I stopped and reflected. The hotel has two entrances; therefore the third person, if he is there, must be in the lobby and therefore not far from the elevator and stairway.
“I thought fast, and it was a good thing I did. I was then on the second floor. I called the floor boy, turning around quickly as if mounting instead of descending.
“ ‘Will you go to the lobby and as if there is a man from Berthier’s waiting? If he is there, will you tell him to come up to apartment 615 immediately?’
“I stressed the last word and, slipping a tip into the boy’s hand, started up toward the third floor. With the boy gone, I turned toward the second floor, walked quickly down to the far end, where I knew the service stairway of the hotel was located. As I plunged into this door I saw the boy and a stout individual rushing up the steps toward the third floor. I sped down this stairway, braving possible suspicion of the employees. I came out in a kind of pantry, much to the surprise of a young waiter, and I commenced a tirade against the hotel’s service that must have burned his ears. I simulated fierce indignation.
“ ‘Where is that good-for-nothing trunkman?’ I demanded. ‘I’m leaving for Genoa at five, and my trunk is still unmoved.’ Meanwhile I glared at him as if making up my mind whether I would kill him or let him live.
“ ‘The trunkmen are through there,’ said the waiter, pointing to a door. I rushed through.
“Inside this basement I called out: ‘Where in hell is the porter of this hotel?’
“An excited trunkman left his work. I repeated fiercely the instructions about my trunk, and then asked how to get out of this foul place. I spotted an elevator and a small stairway, and without another word was up these steps and out in a side street off the Rue de Rivoli.
“I fancied the whole hotel was swarming with excited people by this time, and I jumped into a cruising taxi-cab.
“ ‘Trocadero,’ I ordered, and in one heavenly jolt I fell back into the seat while the driver sped on, up the Seine embankment to a section of quiet and reposeful streets.
“I breathed the free air. I realized what a fool I was; then I experienced a feeling of triumph, as I felt the lump of gems in my pocket. I got out and walked slowly to my apartment, went to the bath and trimmed my beard to the thinnest point, shaving my cheeks clean. I put on a high crown hat, a long fur-lined coat, took a stick, and sauntered out, myself once more, Mr. West, the retired diplomat, who would never think of getting mixed up in such an unsightly brawl as was now going on between the hotel and the respected and venerable institution known as Berthier’s.”
West shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s all. Berthier was right. It was not so easy to rob a Rue de la Paix jeweler, especially of four million francs’ worth of diamonds. I had returned to my apartment, and was hardly through my dinner when the telephone rang.
“ ‘This is Berthier,’ came the excited voice. He told me of this awful Hazim person. He asked if he might see me.
“That night Berthier sat in my library and expounded a dozen theories. ‘It’s a gang, a clever gang, but we’ll catch them,’ he said. ‘One of them duped our man in the hotel lobby by calling him upstairs.’
“ ‘But if you catch the men, will you catch your four millions?’ I asked, fingering the pile of stones in my pocket.
“ ‘No,’ he moaned. ‘A necklace is so easy to dispose of, stone by stone. It’s probably already divided up among that bunch of criminals.’
“I really felt flattered, but no so much than as when I read the newspapers the next day. It was amusing. I have them all in my scrapbook now.”
“How did you confess?” I asked West.
“Simple, indeed, but only with the utmost reluctance. I found the police were completely off the trail. At six o’clock the next afternoon I went to Berthier’s, rather certain that I would be recognized. I walked past the doorman into the store, where Armand hardly noticed me. He was occupied with some wise men. I heard him saying: ‘He was not so tall, as he was heavily built, thick body, large feet, and square head, with a shapeless mass of whiskers. He was from some Balkan extraction, hardly what you’d call a gentleman.’
“I asked to see Berthier, who was still overwrought and irritable.
“ ‘Hello, West,’ he said to me. ‘You’re just the man I want. Please come down and talk with these detectives. You must help me.’
“ ‘Nothing doing,’ I said. ‘Your man Armand has just been very offensive.’
“Berthier stared at me in amazement.
“ ‘Armand!’ he repeated. ‘Armand has been offensive!’
“ ‘He called me a Balkan, said I had big feet, and that I had a square head, and that I was hardly what one would call a gentleman.’
“Berthier’s eyes popped out like saucers.
“ ‘It’s unthinkable,’ he said. ‘He must have been describing the crook we’re after.’
“I could see that Berthier took this robbery seriously.
“ ‘I thought you never fell for those old gags,’ I said.
“ ‘Old gags!’ he retorted, his voice rising. ‘Hardly a gag, that!’
“ ‘Old as the hills!’ I assured him. ‘The basis of most of the so-called magic one sees on the stage.’ I paused. ‘And what will you do with these nice people when you catch them?’
“ ‘Ten years in jail, at least,’ he growled.
“ ‘I looked at my watch. The twenty-four hours were well over. Berthier had talked himself out of adjectives concerning this gang of thieves; he could only sit and clench his fists and bite his lips.
“ ‘Four millions,’ he muttered. ‘It could have been avoided. That man Armand—’
“I took my cue. ‘That man Berthier,’ I said crisply, accusingly, ‘should run his establishment better. Besides, my wager concerned you, and not Armand—’
“Berthier looked up sharply, his brain struggling with some dark clew. I mechanically put my hand in my trousers pocket and very slowly drew out a long iridescent string of crystallized carbon ending in a great square pendant.
“Berthier’s jaw dropped. He leaned forward. His hand raised and slowly dropped to his side.
“ ‘You!’ he whispered. ‘You, West!’
‘I thought he would collapse. I laid the necklace on his desk, a hand on his shoulder. He found his voice.
“ ‘Was it you who got those necklaces?’
“ ‘No, it was I who stole that necklace, and I who win the wager. Please hand over the yellow diamond.’
“I think it took Berthier ten minutes to regain his composure. He didn’t know whether to curse me or to embrace me. I told him the whole story, beginning with our dinner at Ciro’s. The proof of it was that the necklace was there on the desk.
“And I am sure Armand thinks I am insane. He was there when Berthier gave me this ring, this fine yellow diamond.”
West settled back in his chair, holding his glass in the same hand that wore the gem.
“Not so bad, eh?” he asked.
I admitted that it was bit complicated. I was curious about one point, and that was his make-up. He explained:
“You see, the broad low crowned hat reduces one inch from my height; the wide whiskers, instead of the pointed beard, another inch; the bulgy coat, another inch; the trousers, high at the shoes, another inch. That’s four inches off my stature with an increase of girth of about one-sixth of my height—an altogether different figure. A visit to a pharmacy changed my complexion from that of a Nordic to a Semitic.”
“And the hotel?” I asked.
“Very simple. I had Berthier go around and pay the damages for plugging that hole. He’ll do anything I say now.”
I regarded West in the waning firelight.
He was supremely content.
“You must have hated to give up those Indian gems after what you went through to get them?”
West smiled.
“That was the hardest of all. It was like giving away something that was mine, mine by right of conquest. And I’ll tell you another thing—if they had not belonged to a friend, I would have kept them.”
And knowing West as I do, I am sure he spoke the truth.

7 comments:

Bill Crider said...

Always great to see a curiosity like this. Thanks for posting it.

Richard R. said...

Verra cool, laddie. Thanks a lot!

Norman Walz said...

Thanks

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