THE true story of the loss of the great pearl necklace has yet to be written. Of course, at the time it occupied the gossipy Society papers almost to the exclusion of everything else. Many journalists of the paragraphic type professed to give the authentic details, but as every paper varied in these matters, the general public felt that it had yet a good deal to learn. And the general public was right, because in no instance had a single one of those veracious journals come anywhere near the truth.
Of course, everybody knows the parties concerned in the story. For instance, there were Sir David Cordy and his daughter, together with Mr. George Goldsack, the wealthy American who subsequently married Miss Maud Cordy, but of Peter Prouse no mention was made. And as he was practically the hero of the romance, it will be seen at once that any true history of the missing necklace must be incomplete without him. But it was to Peter Prouse and nobody else that the whole merit of the scheme was due. But it will be just as well at this point, perhaps, to recapitulate the main facts, for the public has a short memory in these matters, and is apt to forget one sensation in the presence of another.
As everybody knows, Sir David Cordy is an exceedingly rich man. It really doesn't matter very much how he got his money, seeing that he was in absolute possession of it, and that he was the owner of one of the most magnificent houses in London. He was the owner, too, of many houses elsewhere, which embraced some of the finest partridge and grouse shooting in the country. He also possesses a steam-yacht which is a perfect dream in its way, and as he is inclined to lavish hospitality, he has a large and increasing circle of friends. In public, at any rate, nobody would venture to speak of Sir David as an unscrupulous and cold-blooded scoundrel, but there are a good many hard business men in the City of London who would not have the slightest hesitation in applying that epithet to him. Still, he has always managed to keep within the limits of the law; in fact, he employs half-a-dozen tame lawyers whose business it is to find out exactly how far he can go without bringing himself within reach of the lasso of the law. He is an exceedingly rich man, he gives great entertainments, and therefore he has no trouble whatever in finding himself welcome everywhere. There are a score of such men to-day, and some of them are not without honours, parliamentary and otherwise.
It was about this time that the announcement of the engagement between Miss Maud Cordy and Mr. George Goldsack was announced. Apart from the importance of the affair and the prominent position of the engaged couple, there were novel features which appealed to the Society press. For instance, Mr. Goldsack was one of the richest men in America, and for once he was reversing the programme. He was the rich American who was seeking a wife in England. He had just pulled off some big scheme of a corner in food of some sort; in fact, he had been successful in one of those rascally operations in which a certain type of American business man seems to delight. But as he had been succeasful, instead of emerging with disgraceful bankruptcy, Society clutched him to its bosom, and he found himself made much of. This was going to be the plutocratic marriage of the Season, and Sir David expanded accordingly. It was his bounden duty to give his daughter a present the like of which had never been seen before. There was no doubt from the first as to what form the present would take, seeing that a man of Sir David's antecedents and instincts can never possibly soar outside the regions of costly jewellery. Finally it was decided that the gift should take the shape of a pearl necklafce. Sir David had been dealing in pearls lately, and by means of a peculiarly sharp "spec" he had managed to get possession of some sixty pearls of remarkable purity far below their market value. They were honestly worth a thousand pounds apiece, even at their wholesale price, which fact Sir David did not conceal from such journalists as came along and asked personal questions. Long before the wedding-day everybody knew that Miss Cordy was going to have this unique thing amongst necklaces, and, indeed, it had been exhibited in the window of a Bond Street jeweller. It had been photographed too, for some of the illustrated papers.
In his dingy lodgings out Soho way, Peter Prouse read all about these things. He was getting on in life now, and his prospects were not so good as they might have been. He was a brilliantly clever man in his way, but like so many other brilliant men, he had managed to make a failure of his life. Incidentally he had been in jail, where he had served three years' penal servitude for a fraud in which he always argued he had been little or none to blame. One or two of his intimates were told that the real culprit was a man now rolling in wealth and luxury. And though he discreetly mentioned no names, there were certain people who knew quite well that Sir David Cordy was the man aimed at. And though it doesn't matter for the purpose of this story how far this is correct, it may at once be said that this was substantially true, and that, but for Cordy and certain forgotten transactions, Prouse would have probably been moving in very different circles to-day. As it was, he had a precarious and doubtful existence, more or less connected with advertisements and the cheaper press. Sometimes these led to comparative affluence, sometimes they left Prouse stranded on a very barren shore indeed. These adventures necessitated a constant change of address and a modest concealment of name under initials and other aliases of that sort. But for the last ten years Prouse had managed to evade the police, and at the time the story opens he was in a position of comparative affluence.
He sat there reading the papers and smoking cigarettes and discussing matters generally with his wife. She was considerably younger than himself, rather dainty and refined and innocent-looking. But it must not be inferred from this that she suffered any pangs of conscience or passed sleepless nights thinking of the ill-spent life of the man whom she was supposed to love, honour and obey. On the contrary, she was proud of his talents, and on more than one occasion §he had proved exceedingly useful in Prouse's little schemes of relieving the general public of the necessity of looking after its superfluous cash.
"What a world it is!" Mr, Prouse said. "Now, if this chap had his deserts, he would be in jail long ago. Instead of which, he's got more than he knows how to do with, and now he's going to marry his daughter to a man richer than himself. And he's going to give her a present which will be worth £60,000. Like to have a look at it, Maria? Here's a photograph of it in The Looking Glass. There's going to be a big reception in Park Lane next week so that the girl's friends can inspect the presents, and I see about sixty favoured guests are dining afterwards. I should like to get hold of those pearls! Why, they'd sell for a thousand pounds apiece anywhere. If I had that little lot, I could make at least £50,000, and then we could go and buy ourselves a little place in the country, same as you're always talking about. Upon my word, Maria, if I could do that man out of that necklace, I'd feel inclined almost to give it away. I'd like to get even with him. It's a different man I'd be if I had never come in contact with David Cordy."
Mrs. Prouse murmured her sympathy. She had heard this story a score of times before. But the prospect of comparative wealth and the little place in the country appealed to her. She recognised the fact that Peter was getting on in life, and that as yet he had made no provision for his old age.
"I'm afraid that's out of our reach," she said regretfully. "Besides, it's altogether too big a thing."
"I'm not altogether sure of that," Prouse said thoughtfully. "I was thinking about it last night. They say that hatred sharpens one's wits. Not that I am much of a fool at any time. How much money do we happen to have?"
"Oh, we haven't been lucky lately," Mrs. Prouse replied. "I suppose I've got a matter of about seventy pounds upstairs."
Prouse smiled approvingly.
"That's good enough," he said. "I suppose I can count upon you if you're wanted?"
Mrs. Prouse's pride was properly up in arms. She wanted to know if there had ever been a time when her husband could not count upon her. She reminded him pungently of the one or two occasions upon which her courage and resource had been the means of averting considerable trouble. Prouse duly apologised. He surveyed his wife's dainty prettiness and demure innocence with approval. Should he tell her his scheme or not? he asked himself. Perhaps it would be just as well not to trust her too far, for even the cleverest of women are apt to develop hysterical symptoms in moments of crises.
"All right," he said, "you shall know all about it later on. Meanwhile, I shall want about forty pounds of the money you've got upstairs, and if that forty pounds don't multiply itself by a thousand before the week's out, then my name isn't Peter Prouse. It's the right time of the year, too, and, so far as I can see, everything is in our favour. Now, don't ask a lot of questions, because I'm busy. All you've got to do is to act just as I tell you, and you shall have your little place in the country yet. As for me, I'm going down to St. Albans this evening, and I mayn't be back till to-morrow morning. Let's have the coin, old girl."
Mrs. Prouse fetched the money without protest, and discreetly refrained from asking unnecessary questions. Prouse duly returned from St. Albans the following day, apparently on the best of terms with himself. He asked if a big parcel had come for him, and Mrs. Prouse replied in the affirmative. She saw her husband leave the house presently neatly dressed and clean shaven, with his eyes smiling blandly behind gold-rimmed spectacles. He looked for all the world like a shopwalker or gentlemanly assistant in a West-end business, as his wife did not forget to inform him. The remark seemed to please him, for he muttered something to the effect that that was exactly what he meant to convey.
* * * * *
Sir David was busy, as usual, and he was slightly annoyed to be stopped in this way at the moment when he was leaving his house for the City. But possibly this smooth-spoken young man represented some West-end establishment, and Sir David was graciously pleased to give him five minutes of his time.
"My name is Balin,sir; I represent the firm of Messrs. Larkspur and Son, of Paris," the discreet young man murmured. "No doubt. Sir David, you have heard of Larkspur. The famous Paris florists, you know. We've just opened a branch in London. I thought, perhaps, if you haven't given your orders for the flowers for Miss Cordy's reception next Thursday—"
"I can't be bothered with that," Cordy grunted.
"Pardon me just for the moment, sir. You see, we work on different lines to the English florists. We supply flowers of an infinitely superior quality, and we make arrangements to take them back again. I can assure you, sir, that we can do you at half the price you paid Collins and Sons for the flowers for the big dance which you gave last week. I believe the scheme then, sir, was roses, was it not? For less money than that we will undertake a scheme which calls exclusively for the use of orchids. You see, sir, we could use the orchids again, as they are flowers which last a wonderfully long time, and nobody would be the least the wiser, if you care to favour us."
Sir David was just a little impressed. In spite of all his money, he dearly loved a bargain, and he would have gone a long way to save a sixpence. And the suggestion of the scheme of orchids appealed to him.
"I don't dislike your idea," Sir David said patronisingly, "but unfortunately my arrangements—"
"One moment, sir, just one moment. We are exceedingly anxious to get the custom of anyone like yourself. If you will permit me, I shall be exceedingly glad to decorate the tables where Miss Cordy's presents appear entirely with the green and gold orchids which created such a sensation last week in Paris, when the President was entertaining his royal visitors. These orchids are quite new, and cannot be bought for money. If you will permit me, I will decorate the tables with these flowers, and subsequently they can be moved to the dining-room for your dinner-party. I will send one of the cleverest of floral designers in London, and we shall be only too pleased to send the flowers and fetch them away without any charge whatever. The advertisement will more than repay us for the trouble we are taking."
Sir David promptly closed with the offer. It was one that appealed to his business instincts. It would cost him nothing, and it would be quite a piquant little item for the newspapers afterwards. He stood there chatting on the steps with the gentlemanly representative of Larkspur and Son for quite a long time. It was arranged, at length, that the flowers should come in the following Thursday, the day before the wedding, about three o'clock, so that there would be plenty of time to get the scheme properly set out before Miss Cordy's guests began to arrive for the inspection of the wedding presents. As it was cold March weather, the orchids would be sent in specially constructed vans which the firm always used for that purpose.
"I am greatly obliged to you, sir," Mr. Balin said. "Perhaps you might be good enough to drop a hint to your detective. I mean, sir, to the man from the private inquiry agency who always attends these functions to keep an eye on the presents."
"Oh, I haven't forgotten that, you may be sure," Sir David said. "Yes, my good man, you are quite right. My detectives on these occasions always come from Parker and Lee, of Charing Cross. I generally have the same man—a most reliable creature of the name of Taddy. Perhaps you have met him?"
"Oh, yes, sir," Balin said. "We have frequently met in great houses in the West End. And I am really most grateful to you, sir. You may rely upon my absolute attentions."
Cordy went his way with the air of a man who has done a good stroke of business. He was not quite so pleased, however, when he reached home early on the following Thursday afternoon to find that as yet there was no sign of the gentleman from Messrs. Larkspur or the deft-fingered young lady whose business it would be to arrange the orchids. Sir David fretted and fumed, for a man in his position naturally resents these little pin-pricks on the part of Providence. As a rule, they do not come into the scheme. But as the guests were beginning to arrive, and the dainty Society butterflies began to hover round the Empire tables on which the presents were laid out, Sir David was forced to control himself. The huge drawing-room was one blaze of electric lights now, the room was gradually filling with a chattering mob, and on the centre table furthest from the door lay the great pearl necklace. It was not much brighter than the many bright and envious eyes which were turned upon it, and as Sir David began to realise the importance of the occasion he expanded visibly. At the same moment half-a-dozen gorgeously attired footmen came in solemn procession bearing on silver salvers a really unique and beautiful collection of orchids. There was something so fine and distinguished about these gorgeous flowers that even the presents were forgotten for the moment. Behind the glittering cavalcade came the gentlemanly manager of Larkspur and Son, followed by a shrinking, modest-looking girl dressed in black, and apparently frightened and bewildered by the scheme of splendour in which she found herself.
"It is quite the fault of my assistant, Sir David," Mr. Balin said. "She foolishly forgot my instructions. Now, Miss Gordon, please get to work at once."
With this explanation, Mr. Balin vanished, and the shrinking girl proceeded to lay out her lovely flowers to the best advantage. She was dexterous enough in her work, and with a deft touch here and there proceeded to beautify the tables beyond recognition.
Sir David looked on approvingly. So also did the dark, clean-shaven man in the frock-coat and black tie who hovered near the table with the air of a waiter who is not quite sure that his handiwork will meet with complete approval. He was disguised as a guest, of course, but obviously enough he was a man sent there by Parker and Lee for the purpose of keeping an eye on the presents.
"Yes, they really are marvellous flowers," Sir David said pompously to an admiring guest. "I understand they were imported by my people especially from Paris. The collection originally belonged to an Oriental monarch. They tell me that this lot is worth a fabulous sum; that mixture of green and gold is superb. I understand they look far better on the dining-table. But you will have an opportunity of seeing that for yourself, my dear fellow. I must confess, for my own part, that I like something out of the common. If these things don't run to too great an amount, I think I shall buy them."
The demure little assistant smiled. She quite appreciated the situation. It was so like the man there to boast that he had another collection of these famous orchids besides the glorious wealth of bloom on the table. At this moment the crowd surged back from the tables, for another set of gorgeous footmen came in with the tea. It was at this point, when the scene was at its best and brightest, that the light suddenly went out and the brilliant assembly was plunged in darkness.
"Shut the door, sir," a voice said. "It's Taddy speaking to you. Sir David. I don't say it isn't all right, sir, but it's just possible that this is an impudent dodge—"
Cordy waited to hear no more. He plunged headlong across the room and closed the door with a bang. Some man in the crowd produced a box of matches from his pocket, and one of the gorgeous footmen remembered the gas which was in the drawing-room besides the electric light. It was never used, but still the brackets were retained in case of accidents. But it was a minute or more before the flickering lights faintly illuminated the big saloon, but in that moment the mischief was done. Taddy gasped in dismay as he pointed to the centre table, where the big pearl necklace was now conspicuous by its absence.
It is impossible adequately to convey the scene which followed. It was impossible too, to accuse anyone of the theft. For the next half-hour the bewildered guests huddled together, exchanging glances. And when the police, who had been frantically telephoned for, put in an appearance, they were equally at fault. As for Mr. Taddy, he could tell them nothing. The demure florist, standing by the table where she had been putting the finishing touches to the work, had seen and heard nothing whatever. Indeed, she seemed too utterly bewildered to understand what had happened. The sudden change from the brilliant light to the pitch darkness had had its effect on everybody there, but it was useless to stand idly discussing this great calamity. The thing was done, and there was an end of it, and the authorities were plainly of opinion that Miss Cordy would be lucky if she ever saw her necklace again. In the language of the paragraphists who pursued her so unceasingly, "she was utterly prostrate with grief." One or two intimates stayed to administer what consolation they could, but save for the idea of immediate bed and eau-de-cologne, no practical balm for Miss Oordy's stricken feelings emanated from that frivolous crowd.
"What's the good of that?" the demented young woman asked. "Besides, we've got a dinner-party to-night, and if those dreadful people have taken my necklace, why, then, my father must buy me another one. But please tell that young woman to take those dreadful orchids away. I shall never see an orchid again without thinking about this terrible afternoon."
The pretty little assistant stood there, blushing and trembling. She glanced appealingly to Sir David, who very naturally demurred to this exhibition of sentiment on his daughter's part. The orchids had cost him nothing, it is true, but then he had been looking forward to boasting and swaggering about them at his dinner-table later on, and this was one of the things which he enjoyed above everything. But for once in his life he had to give way.
"Better remove them," he muttered. "At any rate, I suppose I can have them on another occasion. Here, one of you men, go and order a cab and bring this young woman's baskets back. Pack them up and get them away at once. I can call round to your shop in the morning and explain."
It took some little time to pack the flowers, for the room was mainly occupied now by the police force, who were searching everywhere for the missing pearls. The little florist appeared to watch them with dazed fascination. Presently she realised that her curiosity was out of place, so she proceeded to entwine the stems of her flowers with cotton-wool, and to place them in their mossy boxes with almost loving care. It was really marvellous to see in how small a space those long trails and clusters of blooms folded when they were handled by expert fingers. A detective, evidently with a passion for flowers, watched the work with frank admiration.
"I didn't think you could have possibly done it, miss," he said. "Why, when we came in, those tables were one mass of glorious blooms, and now you've got them all packed away so that they would go into a good-sized dressing-case. They are very light, too."
"Yes, aren't they?" the assistant said, with a shy smile. "And I wonder how I managed so well, because I've never known my hand shake so much as it did just now. And I do hope that pretty young lady will get her necklace back again. It seemed such a horrible trick to play upon her. Do you suppose it really was a planned affair? Isn't it just possible that some guest took advantage of the accident?"
The speaker pulled up as if ashamed of her audacity in making such a suggestion. The detective shook his head meaningly. He was bound to admit, he said, that he had heard of such things. The little assistant sighed as she demurely left the room and made her way into the street. She was infinitely obliged to the gorgeous footman who had called her a cab, but really, she didn't want one, she had such a little distance to go, and she much preferred to walk. She disappeared down the street, and presently was crossing the Park in the westerly direction. Almost at the same moment one of the leading lights from Scotland Yard arrived at Park Lane with the demand to see Sir David at once.
"I am afraid it is a put-up thing, sir," he said. "I've been down to Parker and Lee's making inquiries. The man you had here just now was not their man at all. They couldn't send you Taddy, because he met with an accident, but they sent you another man equally reliable, who had instructions last night to be here at three o'clock. We have just found out that he never went home last evening at all. You may depend upon it that he has met with foul play. Probably he was lured into some den and heavily drugged. The man who came here and personated him, beyond all doubt was the thief. Of course, we can't tell quite how he managed it, and up to now we have found nothing wrong with the main switches of the electric light. But no doubt he managed to establish a short circuit somewhere, and directly the light went out he popped the necklace in his pocket."
"The scoundrel!" Sir David groaned. "I suppose you'll manage to get hold of him. He is sure to be some well-known criminal."
"Oh, of course," the inspector said soothingly. "We shall lay hands upon him right enough. I know it must have been intensely dark for the moment, but it's rather odd that the assistant from the florists didn't notice anything. She was actually arranging the flowers at the time. I don't suppose she can give us any information, but I should like to speak to her."
"You don't mean to suggest," Sir David cried, "that—"
"Oh, dear, no, sir. There's no shadow of doubt in my mind as to who the thief is, but one never knows."
"The girl's gone. I wanted her to rearrange the flowers in the dining-room for to-night's dinner, but my daughter wouldn't hear of it."
The inspector murmured that the matter was of little importance, and meanwhile the innocent florist was making her way by the circuitous route to the obscure lodging in Soho where Mr. Peter Prouse lived. He smiled largely and blandly as he saw the parcel which she was carrying in her hand.
"This is better luck than I expected," he said. "I thought we should have had to wait for those flowers at least till to-morrow morning. I thought we should have had to fetch them."
"Oh, the girl took a dislike to them," Mrs. Prouse explained. "She said she never wanted to see an orchid again, so Sir David told me to pack them up and take them back to the shop, and here I am. And now I am dying with curiosity—"
"Right you are," Prouse said immediately. "Unpack the flowers; do it carefully and lay them on the table."
"Just as if I should do it carelessly. I am too fond of flowers for that... There, now. And now tell me what possible connection there can be between these blooms and the disappearance of Miss Cordy's pearl necklace."
"That's quite easy enough," Prouse said. "Now, just pass me those three large sprays of blooms. Thank you. Now, I take this pair of tweezers and insert it in the gold and green cup at the base of this flower, which looks so exactly like a mouth—or, rather, like a glorified snapdragon. And from it I produce this pearl, which is worth at least a thousand pounds. You see, I go on doing this with the tweezers till I remove all the pearls which you see before you. See how beautifully they fit into the receptacles and how utterly impossible it would be to guess where they were. My idea, of course, was that the flowers would be removed by you to the dining-table, and when all those swells were discussing the loss of the pearls, they would be under their very eyes all the time. Then you would have gone round to the house to-morrow morning to fetch the flowers away, just as if they really did belong to Larkspur and Son, and as if you were an assistant in the shop. It was a million to one against Cordy's suspecting that there was anything wrong as far as you and the orchids were concerned. Now, I didn't tell you what the game was as far as you were concerned, and what risks you had to run, because it would have made you too horribly nervous. You would never have got out of the house all right if you knew you had the pearls in your possession. I wanted you to think the flowers were only part of the blind."
"I did think so," Mrs. Prouse said. "And you are quite right, Peter, I'm glad I didn't know."
"Oh, that's all right," Prouse said. "The rest was quite easy. You see, I had to get that private detective out of the way, and that was no great trouble. I managed to drug him all right, and then of course I had to take his place. It was easy for me to pose as the representative of Larkspur and Son, but it was not quite so easy to take you into the drawing-room of Park Lane and then to slip out of the house again and come back five or ten minutes later freshly made up to take the part of the Parker and Lee's detective. But I had been there in that role in the morning, so that the servants might get familiar with me. Still, an old hand at the game like myself managed to slip into a lavatory when all the servants were busy and alter my make-up a little. When I came back into the drawing-room, I studied exactly how the land lay, and almost before the lights were out I had my hand upon that necklace. I had only to cut the string, and all the pearls slipped into my hands. It didn't take me long to feel for the orchids and slip the pearls into those little green and gold mouths."
"But the light?" Mrs. Prouse asked.
"Oh, that was the easiest of the lot. When I was in the drawing-room early in the afternoon, I took one of the lamps off from a cluster near the table. When the time came, I had only to take my knife out of my pocket and touch the negative and positive poles in the lamp-socket with the steel blade. That short circuited it at once, and blew out the fuse. The rest was quite easy. But it's a pretty little scheme altogether, and I am quite proud of it. At any rate, I'm even with Cordy now. The only thing I regret is that I can't tell him whom he had to thank for the loss. But you can't have everything."