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CURSE of the DIAMONDS

CURSE of the DIAMONDS

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CURSE of the DIAMONDS

Lunghezza:
437 pagine
6 ore
Pubblicato:
Jul 18, 2012
ISBN:
9781476073569
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

MEYER NECKLACE STOLEN
The Diamond Exhibition at the British Geological Museum was today
after the robbery of the priceless Meyer Necklace...
A Scotland Yard spokesman would not comment on the investigation
except to say that various lines of enquiry were being explored...

She centred the White Star of Africa into the cleft of her beasts, adjusting the three strands until they lay perfectly, marvelling at the increased effect.

Lady Winton sat quietly at her dressing table, almost as though in a trance.
Her eyes stared unseeingly into the ornate, gold-framed mirror. A shadow appeared to dull the reflection, moving slowly until it encompassed her completely.
A tiny smile parted her lips.

The fabulous necklace again sparkled under the flickering lights of the chandelier
in the centre of her room and the two shaded lamps, one each side of the marble top.
Thousands of dancing fires in every hue and tone blazed from the uncounted facets of the six hundred diamonds. The ring of stones surrounding and the centrepiece diamond flashed around her, alive with the colours and refracted lights of the rainbow.

Her maid knocked softly.
When there was no reply she entered quietly. Mesmerised, she hesitated before asking, 'Do you require any assistance with the necklace. m'lady?'
With no answer, she touched her employer lightly on the shoulder.
The shadow seemingly encasing her, disappeared. The maid screamed.

Lady Winton was dead.

The Curse of the Diamonds!

Pubblicato:
Jul 18, 2012
ISBN:
9781476073569
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

J J BARRIE, the Australian born author and novelist, recently retired after years of involvement in general business writing in order to concentrate on a love of historical crime and investigative procedure. The first historical crime novel was published in 2009. An abiding interest over decades in English family history largely related to Cambridgeshire and adjacent counties continues. Particular interest and research into industrialisation and the resultant migration to the colonies has resulted in THE EMIGRANTS. The trilogy is almost complete with the first volume - THE BROTHERS FIVE - published in eBook and print formats by Custom Books. The second volume - GOLD & GLORY - is in edit for release towards the end of 2012. The final volume is in draft and planned to be released in 2014. Now writing fulltime and extensively traveled, with a close knowledge of much of Europe and Asia, each novel has a particular affinity with their locales as reflected in the revised historical novel just released – MONA LISA: THE VIRGIN MOTHER. Several other historical thrillers are works in progress, notably CURSE OF THE DIAMONDS and THE SHELFORDS OF SHELFORD – both set predominantly in England. More information is at www.jjbarrie.com

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CURSE of the DIAMONDS - JJ Barrie

CURSE

OF THE DIAMONDS

A novel by

JJ BARRIE

MEYER NECKLACE STOLEN

' The Diamond Exhibition at the British Geological Museum was today after the robbery of the priceless Meyer Necklace. ...

A Scotland Yard spokesman would not comment on the investigation except to say that various lines of enquiry were being explored...'

Copyright © 2012 J J Barrie

The right of J J Barrie to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988.

Published in the United States of America by

CUSTOM BOOK PUBLICATIONS

SMASHWORD EDITION

All the characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

****

THE STORY SO FAR … 1929

Chesapeake Bay, St. Mary’s, Maryland, USA

Randolph Winthrop Rockford II was concerned.

'Father… You should rest. You are overdoing things lately.' The deep, ornate leather chair in his father's study seemed to encompass the frail body of the once tall and erect railroad tycoon. His breathing remained shallow and strained and a raft of diseases now affected the old man following his second heart attack in two years. Emphysema had taken hold and he involuntarily wheezed once again.

'Randy, sit down... put that cigarette out. Where is Penelope?'

'Sorry father, I wasn’t thinking. Pen will be here soon. I have so much on my plate at the moment with this depression biting hard. I need to close the Allegheny line; I’ll keep maintenance going but loop is uneconomic, I…'

'You run the business… yours now… I don’t want to be bothered with any of that. There are more… more important things to talk about…' The old man coughed, then wheezed once again, intuitively knowing he would be dead in a month or two at most.

'Hello Daddy.' Penelope kissed her father on the forehead.

His daughter, nineteen next birthday, sat down in one of the chairs opposite. ‘Randy, could you pour me a glass of wine, please?'

Christened Robert O’Raffetty, Randolph Winthrop Rockford was born eighty-six years earlier in County Cork into a poor labouring family. Now a wealthy railroad baron in the true American tradition, he changed his name on the way from rags to riches. Fifty years passed since Randolph had purchased the small railway hauling spare parts and steel components for the newly established naval shipyard. He built on this miniscule network by ruthlessly taking over the companies of his competitors, he thought nothing of bribing officials and buying politicians.

At twenty-one and almost penniless when he immigrated to the United States, he already dreamed of visiting the art galleries of New York. With his efforts focussed on heavy freight and the shipment of oil, and on the underlying land, he parlayed this tiny beginning into a major network. By thirty-five, with a bourgeoning railroad, real estate profits and a young man’s enthusiasm, Randolph set about building an eclectic art collection to rival the best.

He turned every piece of surplus property he could not use into cash during the boom of the late 1880’s. The inevitable bust came, a crushing depression loomed and he spent his funds buying back the land for a pittance. His fortune grew and Randolph invested not only in his railroad empire – he amassed one of the finest collections of European art anywhere, its range and quality rivalled many museums. Unknown to all but a few, collecting diamonds was his other penchant.

For years, he relied upon the firm of Rothschild Dubois Galleries in New York and Paris. Old Rothschild offered any fine painting coming into the market to his American client first, earning considerable esteem for his galleries and not insubstantial commissions as the Winthrop Rockford collection of works by the Renaissance masters expanded. In 1910, the old man Rothschild passed on, leaving his share of the business to his playboy son.

The self-educated tycoon, gauche in many ways and typical of the nouveau riche of the new order of American businessmen, used his collections as his ticket into the upper echelons of American society. He craved this elevation for himself and his family, seeing money as the progenitor and a son, the foundation stone of a dynasty.

His first wife, the widow of Silas Winthrop, one of the partners in the famed New York firm of stockbrokers, gave him his only son. An arranged marriage of convenience, she died in childbirth. He divorced his disastrous second wife, Vanessa, after another of her numerous affairs but his third was the true love of his life, and Penelope’s mother... had Paulette lived. As war loomed, one fateful afternoon she drowned during a storm while crossing the channel to England. She left him distraught and widowed, his legacy – a fine baby girl.

Randolph Winthrop Rockford Jnr. completed his law degree at Princeton before entering the family brokerage. After learning the cut and thrust of business in the east coast city, he returned to his father’s railroad – and chief executive at twenty-six.

His much younger sister, over whom he fawned, completed her schooling at Vassar. She was now at leisure, as she often informed her ailing father.

Parting with some of his private inner thoughts, the frail old man reminisced over the purchase of his favourite paintings and his penchant for diamonds.

'Pen, your mother was the most beautiful woman… She would be so proud of you. I have something special for each of you. Long ago, when we married in Paris, I purchased a necklace for her. The diamonds are yours now … She left me with my memories …and those priceless baubles. Although the provenance was a little suspect at the time, it has been a good investment. She put the piece on only once, the night before… she was lost... Just that one time… She looked magnificent.' He sighed at the memories while Penelope reached for his hand.

A single tear coursed down his cheek. 'The necklace was supposed to be cursed but… well, maybe that's true. Everyone who seems to have touched it has died… and a violent death at that… except me, of course. I have outlived them all… the Meyer Necklace. You need to know about the history…' He coughed once again, spitting phlegm into his handkerchief. Randolph and Penelope waited for the spasm to cease. 'Give me a scotch, Randy… I know… doctor’s orders… one…'

He sipped appreciably from the cut crystal glass before the old man continued. 'The history… nobody seems to know the full story but the legend is said to begin with a theft. Late last century, a young black African shepherd named Esau, found the main diamond while fossicking in a dry streambed near where Cecil Rhodes and his partner… what's his name? They established the Kimberley Mine at Colesberg a decade earlier… By then mining of the pipe was at its peak and they produced all the best stones… Security and discipline at the new De Beers Company was tough... and…'

He coughed once again before continuing after a few moments. '…The Afrikaans overseer flogged the boy and stole the diamond. When he complained, they simply dropped him senseless in the veldt to be claimed by some wild animal… I guess that was the start of the so-called curse.' Randolph continued to sip the scotch and water. 'To cover the horrific crime ...and discourage others from stealing, they told the superstitious native workers it was the curse of the diamonds. The overseer fell from a bench and died; now they really believed and the story stuck… In time, the raw stone found its way out of Africa to the cutting tables of the Asscher brothers. I met them sometime later; Abraham and Joseph ran the Royal Asscher Diamond Company in Amsterdam… Let me think… around 1890. The stone disappeared for maybe fifteen years. By then Robert Ellison was the owner… a London diamond merchant, I bought an occasional piece from him.'

Randolph picked up his glass while he pondered the story. 'Yes, yes… After they finished an English jeweller, John somebody… yes… Francolin made the first necklace.'

He coughed, clearing his throat before continuing.

'... must have been 1910 when Pierre Cartier in Paris remade it completely.' Cheered by the memory, he smiled at some thought before he continued. '…I met him several times, did I tell you? Wonderful young man and excellent with diamonds… He told me his work would always be able to be identified... he imprinted his mark, can't remember where... His initials, I think... Anyway then Lord Winton, the third Earl of Cordovan, bought finished product. No doubt tormented by the curse…'

He laughed. 'Curse or no curse, Ellison died a month later, Francolin lost his wife in an accident and the once-rich lord found himself in bankruptcy within six months… Now do you see what I mean?' He finished his drink.

'No one has any idea then as the necklace disappeared. Pour me another scotch, Randy. Not too much… One more won't...'

He again sipped. 'Not bad, that whiskey… The Great War was coming and my rather shady dealer in Paris offered it to me. Could have been… well, lost or … maybe the diamonds were sold to pay off the debts by the fourth earl… Never did find out… 'Penelope; your mother's wedding present is now yours.'

'Randy... the year before… was that 1911, no maybe 1912… I bought a rather superb painting of the Mona Lisa… a magnificent piece, could be by Da Vinci himself and long lost. That is another story. Nobody would admit the origin … might even have been the real Monna Vanna itself… but every bit a masterpiece in its own right… In those days before colour photography some of the best copies were just as good. I often wondered how many of the masters hanging in the galleries are by the original artist... anyway she is now yours, my boy.'

He noticed his father had difficulty keeping his eyes open. The recounting of the tale was becoming too much. 'Where is the necklace, and the painting?' asked Randy, ignoring the comments on the curse as being the ravings of age.

His father brightened. 'They are right here... been in this room all the time. Turn on the light switch and press the panel,' the old man instructed pointing to the blank wall opposite, '…and slide the door open … that’s right.' A blue silken screen curtained the opening. 'Pull the tape, Randy.'

As he pulled the short length of cord, the sheath fell. 'Oh, where… but…' stuttered a stunned Penelope. 'How…? My God, she is beautiful.'

Randy was speechless. He continued to stare, his eyes transfixed until finally he spoke. 'The smile… that beguiling smile. Magnificent…'

'Our own lady is quite remarkable, isn’t she… and now for the necklace, hidden behind her. Take her carefully off her hooks, Randy.'

At the rear was a safe door. 'Here...' Randolph fumbled for a small key on a long chain attached to his waistcoat fob. 'You need the combination… I keep forgetting … Ah... I knew I wrote it down.' He handed his son an old calling card with the almost illegible writing on the reverse.

Randy turned the key before he twisted the knob one way then the other, and back again. A final number and the door sprang ajar. He reached in and removed the black embossed leather box from the tiny safe. 'Well… go on and open it, Penelope... yours now,' her father wheezed.

The magnificent diamond necklace uncovered, the colours shimmered and reflected in the light of the wall sconces. A thousand or more facets winked from the six hundred diamonds, from the faceted chips to the centrepiece, flashed as though alive. Twelve exquisite emerald-cuts surrounded the sixty-five carat, crystal-clear blue-white centre diamond.

Randolph and Penelope stood back, stunned by the beauty and the immensity of the unbelievable two hundred and seventy-seven carats – two ounces.

'My God, just… so magnificent, father. I shall treasure her necklace always,' Penelope muttered. 'Mother’s…'

An uncanny silence became apparent. Nobody moved. Neither breathed, the stillness only broken by Penelope, 'Oh, my God, they are both so beautiful… now I understand.'

'I will also look after her as well,' added Randy.

They turned towards their father slumped in his chair with his eyes closed, a wistful smile of ecstasy fixed on his wizened face. He was dead.

That night, as snow blanketed the immense, almost monumental, home, another life commenced. Randolph’s wife, Mary Lou gave birth to a tiny baby boy. Miscarried twice before, on this occasion the family was prepared. A doctor and experienced nurses were in attendance and the best of equipment already installed in the hospital suite, recently vacated by the boy’s grandfather. The boy survived but the pall of death pervaded.

The duty nurse failed to notice the shadow pass slowly from the departed to the living. The next morning the baby was dead.

The Curse of the Diamonds

*****

SIXTEEN YEARS LATER ... 1945

Prato, Italy

Brigadier David Somerset – the Viscount Winton – ordered the 11th Armoured Division to begin establishing the bridgehead a few miles from the city of Pistoia right in the middle of ancient Tuscany.

In the maproom at the Villa Grimadi, serving as the combined allied war room, two young Generals argued with anyone venturing an opinion. That is, until the confident, decisive moment when the Old Man, as the Chief-of-Staff was known, set down in stone the strategy to be followed.

Instant silence fell as he spoke. 'Our forces must not be caught off-balance. If we are to advance up the centre, the Germans under someone like von Hallenburg will appreciate this – and I ought to know because he is my wife’s cousin. Therefore, we must out-think him. We go round.'

The Field-Marshall picked up his pacing stick to use as a pointer. 'Around here, at the back of this range. I realise the surface of the road is poor and narrow with a steep incline on this side – but it heads north. We move this way, and we go like hell up here whilst in the valley we send our armoured division. We’ll spread them out and try to stay out of trouble. This will draw the Germans and distract them from our real advance.'

He stopped, taking the cigarette out of a packet. The lighter held by his adjutant flashed almost before it reached his lips. 'Get ahead of them like that, we will win,' he added, smiling at his officers. Not a soul stirred. 'Well gentlemen, what are you waiting for? Issue the necessary orders. Time this show was on the road… Don’t forget to send at least one corps around his flank. See if we can get in behind the German defences. That’ll stir the buggers up!'

'Quite so, sir,' said the Brigadier, his mouth open like the others.

For days, everyone had been thinking and planning a single line-ahead advance – now this earth shattering left hook with the potential to cut off the retreating Germans. As though a star shell had burst, the officers of the General Staff realised the stroke of genius. Each saluting crisply, they departed as the first rays of the dawn broke the darkness, not another word necessary. Within the hour, detailed orders were transmitted down the chain of command. Eleven thousand men with four hundred tanks and an equal number of armoured carriers moved off towards their designated positions.

The allied campaign to win back northern Italy had commenced.

For David, the war finished. The artillery shell exploded, raining shrapnel in a wide circle. One arc cut a swathe of destruction through his command centre – so near it may as well have been a direct hit. Flesh shredded and bones broke, limbs and bodies smashed; for many, death was a welcome relief from the terrible injuries. Brigadier Somerset was one of the few lucky ones that afternoon. He received a broken leg, scrapes and burns to his body and shrapnel – a tiny sliver of steel – in his shoulder, dangerously close to arteries feeding his heart. With this and a few unimportant internal injuries, he would live. Behind the advancing front line following the path of the River Arno and flanking the ancient city of Florence, he was treated in a field hospital, his war over.

The calendar had been turned to November 1944 and the northern snows even now commenced their flurries. With other wounded officers, he moved from Prato to the northeast of the city to mend and recuperate at the Palazzo Lippi in Florence. The old palace overlooking the Piazza del Duomo, taken over by the British as a military hospital for officers, served its purpose well.

He walked with the provisional cane and a temporary limp. David ambled across the small square of lawn remaining in the gardens of the Lippi, sitting to rest on a bench. He had forgotten his tin of wartime wax matches. About to put his purloined pack of American cigarettes back in his pocket, she spoke in Italian with an obvious American accent. 'Ciao, a light perhaps?' she offered.

The sun shone on her lustrous black hair, sunbeams playing on her wayward locks. With dark blue-green vibrant eyes and her full lips slightly parted, she negotiated the tiny flame. David put the cigarette in his mouth before guiding her soft hands towards him. Her slim fingers cupped against a non-existent breeze. He became lost in her beauty.

'Thank you,' he said, his fluency in Italian faltering. 'Please sit down, I’m David.' He introduced himself while still holding her hands, 'David Somerset.'

'Penelope – Penelope Winthrop Rockford.' She replied in a lilting accent before enquiring, 'English is my native language; how are your injuries coming along?'

'Well; so good, I expect I shall be returned to England in a few weeks. No doubt transferred to a desk somewhere; I am afraid the real war is over for me. And you?'

'Me? I resided in Florence; came on a tour from America and… well, I stayed and married here. After war broke out, I joined the Red Cross fleeing to Greece when the Germans arrived. After the allied invasion, I returned to assist.'

He realised he still had her hand in his. David apologised, 'Oh, so sorry, I…'

'Please... quite all right, a long time has passed since I held a man’s hand except to take his pulse or bandage him in some way. The Fascists killed my husband a few years ago … and what about you?'

'A fiancée who ran off with a fighter pilot; womanless, I am afraid. Care to join me for dinner? The leg is much better?' David asked the smiling young woman.

'I would love to, but you will not find any choice. Food is still short although I do know a small family-run trattoria, which seems to work wonders with the little they get. They are quite close, on the other side of the square. Most evenings, I'm rostered off.'

'Then tomorrow... Well, why not this evening?' responded David, already smitten.

'Why not indeed; I shall meet you here at seven and I can walk you across. The exercise will do you good. Sorry, that’s the nurse in me talking.'

'That is a date, Signora.'

'Miss might be more appropriate in the circumstances.'

Penelope lay awake on the rumpled sheets of the huge old bed. Part of her husband’s legacy, she recalled how she fell in love and married the darkly handsome man after a whirlwind romance on one of her tours of Europe. With unrest rife and the church aimless and in disarray under a weak pope, war and turmoil brewed. She and her new husband were fervent, joining the protest against the increasing atrocities of the Fascist regime. Soon growing into a defined resistance, a strong partisan force developed which divided Italy. Many joined the movement, fighting from the villages and hills, the mountains and valleys, risking atrocious retribution – Daniele one of the idealists joining. The decision led to his untimely demise and her inability to leave Italy.

By the time they decided another war was inevitable, and she should return to the United States, a sympathiser betrayed her husband. He died at the hands of the Fascists, their jackboots stamping on anyone or anything in their way as they took over pre-war Italy. After two months of terror and torture, when his execution came with a single bullet to the head and burial along with eighty-four others in a mass pit, death was almost a relief. His last prayer that Penelope not be caught had been answered. He witnessed the result of capture – women repeatedly raped, mutilated, beaten, ravished and violated in every possible way before being killed.

With the railroad left to her brother, her father provided for her well, with a substantial trust fund, the magnificent collection of art and a priceless diamond necklace. Her legacy remained in Maryland in his hands. When war came, Penelope had him deposit with her bankers a quantity of gold bullion, sufficient to maintain their quiet lifestyle and provide substantial support to her partisan friends. After her husband’s death, the income was enough to enable her to live, without the luxury that might alert the Fascists or the Germans, or both, to seek her.

With a price on her head, Penelope could not arrange passage to the United States. Assisted by the underground she was smuggled out of Italy to Greece and then back to Malta. She waited for the inevitable invasion by the allies, joining the Red Cross.

Courted, wooed and occasionally bedded, it was not until the tides of war changed with the American-led offensive into Italy that she joined the liberation forces. Following the advancing armies marching up the spine of Italy, she loved fiercely as they pushed the Germans from the beloved country of her husband and defeated the cancer of Fascism.

In Florence, she married one of her wounded charges. Ministering to the American soldier’s superficial wounds expertly, they quickly shipped him back to the nearest front. Not so lucky the second tour, a bullet through his heart cut short his life – and his six-week-old marriage to Penelope. Not even enough time had been found to register the wartime tryst.

By 1945, when she met the young English Brigadier – the most senior officer she had ever tended – at thirty-three, she was war-wise and widowed twice.

She had lived a lifetime already.

Penelope turned on her side, her hands tracing the outline of her lover. He snored softly, almost purring, she thought. Her fingers caressing, she touched, slowly wakening him. David Somerset rolled over lazily. His eyes still closed, a tiny smile formed on his lips as she slipped her leg over him. As she moved she held him firmly, feeling him rise stiffly in her fingers before descending, taking him resolutely inside her. They made love once more. Leaning forward, her small breasts touching his chest, she kissed him deeply. Her tongue was probing, seeking and entwining. 'Don’t you ever sleep,' he remarked.

'Life is for living, my darling; I’ve missed out on so much, I’m making up for lost time.'

The second, then the third month passed all too fast, both now waiting in trepidation for the brown official Army letter to arrive signalling his return to England or his new orders.

'Why can't I come with you?' Penelope pleaded.

'My love, we have been all through this already, Italy is an occupied country and at war with England. I am being moved back by the navy. Shipping is seconded for naval purposes. No one is able to do anything; I have been as high as one can go but even the request to marry you has fallen on deaf ears. The war will be over soon and then I shall take you home. Be patient, my darling.'

*****

Southampton, England

A month later, with a healed body and a heavy, saddened heart; David shipped out of Naples harbour on a British destroyer. Surprised to be met by his mellow, grey-haired father, resplendid in the uniform of a Brigadier-General, David was unsure whether embrace him or shake hands. He took the easy way out. He brought his hand up in a crisp British Army salute.

'Father.'

At his side stood an erect General Sir James Grenville-Street. As Lord Hathaway, he was one of Winston Churchill’s most trusted advisors, in charge of the headquarters at Cheltenham.

David saluted his superior officer. 'Sah!' The General had his full attention.

'Jolly good to have you home, Brigadier. You are posted to my personal staff. I need an adjutant until a new posting happens along. Your father and I just finished discussing the matter. Enough combat, now we require you in England. Enjoy leave until Sunday then I will expect you on Monday; your orders.' He handed David the official brown envelope.

'Yessir,' acknowledged David, providing the General with another of his crisp salutes.

'Well, goodbye Robert, no doubt have a whiskey on Saturday evening.'

David and the Earl walked from the naval wharf towards the staff car. 'Father, I must say I am surprised you are in uniform.'

'We should do our bit for the country; I seconded myself to the War Reparations Tribunal… war effort and all that. The war will be over soon or so Winston keeps saying. How are you, my boy? Recovered, what?'

'Just a slight limp... it will go in time; and mother?'

'Fine, fine, we are well in both body and spirit but to have you home should be good for her. She will be quite relieved your war in Europe is over… oh, and Saturday night is the Field Marshall’s birthday bash. Low-key; the Old Man is sixty-five.' He changed the subject abruptly, adding, 'What’s this about an Italian girl … all over, what?'

'No, as a matter of fact, and she is American, sir,' he smiled.

Both entered the brown Austin staff car with its slit headlights and camouflage dressing, the corporal placing the luggage into the commodious boot.

'Anything else, sah? McDonahue, I’m your new batman, sah… just Donny is fine, sir.'

'No thank you, Corporal. In that case, you will be driving me on Monday morning; rather early, if I may say so, as we are due at Cheltenham. You had best check with the Lieutenant to endorse your papers.'

He saluted in the sharp mechanical manner of the enlisted man, the Army driver held open the rear door. 'Private, to Waterloo Station,' ordered David's father. 'We shall take the train to Cambridge, my boy; a car is waiting. Tell me all about this woman you want to marry. I will check what can be done.'

*****

Cambridgeshire, England

David dressed in his regimental mess uniform, something not worn for two years. Pleased the jacket still fitted immaculately, he noted the new medals, the gleaming leather and burnished brass. Using their second car, a black Wiley four-door, Corporal McDonahue, now officially his Army driver and batman had polished not only the leather and brass but also the car’s duco to within an inch of its life.

'Do you know the way to Chatsworth Hall, Donny? Our estates join somewhere; cannot be too far away?'

'Yes, sir, not a problem, I ‘aven’t got lost for years,' he replied, confident.

'Good man but no need to hurry. We still have some fifty minutes or so.'

'Yessir, as you say, sah.'

David entered the grand ballroom of the stately home owned by Lord Gainsbury, the current Secretary for War, and host to the party. The pompous butler intoned loudly. 'Brigadier Somerset; his Lordship the Viscount Winton.'

'Ah, David, come and meet some people; now you met…'

*****

Roseworth Hall, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Robert, Lord Winton, felt an immense pride in his chest, sitting in his private study with his only son, David. Both were currently contemplating their brandy balloons. His now aging butler refilled the warmed glasses with a second cognac. 'Anything else, m’lord?'

'No, Verge, go and take the weight off those legs of yours; let the young finish up. A brandy, by the way, often helps; why not take a nip or two with you? Goodnight, old man.'

'Goodnight, m’lord and you too Mister David; good you are home, sir.' A nightly charade, both aware he already took two or three nips every evening for the last ten years. The old retainer had been with Robert as his manservant for another twenty, joining him after his repatriation home after the Great War. The arthritic condition was a cover – Verge suffered for all that time from emphysema brought on by the gassing of his platoon at Ypres, the limp was an old broken leg that failed to mend properly after being set in a makeshift field hospital in 1917. Verge spent the decades since caring for his every whim.

Mellow after a fine dinner and a bottle of French burgundy but at the same time, Robert was forthright. 'David, my boy – I do not need to tell you we require an heir. At your age, you should be married. I considered you could do worse than Lady Annabel Hope. Such a union would add substantially to our holdings but this American … tell me about her. What do we know of the family, and all that.'

David took no umbrage at the statement. Little remained more important to his father than a continuation of the lineage. 'I am afraid my heart is back in Italy.'

'So what, my boy, if love arrives that is excellent but just a bonus?'

David explained their meeting and the affair with Penelope. Robert contemplated the information. 'Did you say her surname was Winthrop Rockford?'

'Yes, father… She told me before her first marriage she was Penelope de Sevré Winthrop Rockford. She comes from Maryland in the United States. Her father is dead and her brother now runs the family railroad...'

Robert paled markedly. A wry smile shortly parted his lips as the full story unfolded. 'My God, the old man’s…'

He pondered for a minute, lighting a cigar with deliberation. 'Well, well, I think the time has arrived for a family history lesson. Pour another cognac David. We are sure to need the warmth before the night is out, my boy.'

David refilled the two balloons. Robert cleared his throat. 'What I am about to tell you… and I might add, show you… must remain our secret. You will shortly understand the reason.' Robert sipped the warming brandy, contemplating the discussion to come before commencing the story.

'Everything started way back in 1911 – well some years earlier, I suppose. My father – your grandfather –a staid old boy was in real trouble by that time. Thankfully, our forebears ensured the estates were in trusts for future generations and could not, as they remain today, be mortgaged or sold. However, the investments of each generation are not protected against the foibles of life. Father spent all his and then some; he was an inveterate and, I might add, hopeless gambler. He would wager on anything. His bankers had enough and called up his borrowings. They found everything sold. He owed a veritable fortune to bookmakers so bankruptcy was expected. A necklace and some art, which he somehow failed to disclose, remained hidden.

'The art was important but the necklace was something else. Obviously taken with the design, he paid the then unimaginable sum of fourteen thousand pounds. No ordinary necklace, it was said to be cursed. The curse of the diamonds!

'A year before the war, he came to some arrangement with the banks and his creditors. The next year he died. I met with the solicitors after his death, expecting we would still owe quite an amount under the agreement. To my astonishment, they had been fully settled and we had more than a half a million pounds invested. The old man had sold the necklace and the rest of the art through a dealer in Paris. Somehow, mother smuggled it to her family in Basel, and finally to Paris. Your grandmother wore those magnificent diamonds only once – a few weeks before she died… I recall it was to the Jubilee Ball at Buckingham Palace. After her untimely death, father named it the Meyer Necklace in her honour – her maiden name. The three-strand silver setting had six hundred diamonds from the tiniest to the centrepiece, two hundred or more carats.'

He hesitated then refilled his balloon before continuing, 'My boy, we found out later a railroad baron from America bought the necklace.'

'You do not mean…'

'Yes, I am certain. Randolph Winthrop Rockford – his wife died tragically in the sinking of a steamer on the way to England not long after they were married. I recall we were informed her name was Paulette de Sevré. She was originally French living in England.'

Dumbstruck, David poured himself another cognac and lit a cigarette, 'Penelope told me she never met her mother… she drowned. She once said her inheritance remained in America. Good God, what a small world.'

'You should read the satchel of papers in the safe, now you are home ... there are no doubt details I probably forgot.'

Robert could not stop the sardonic smile forming on his face as he too pondered the coincidences. 'My boy, we shall pull some strings and have your lady repatriated rather soon. Leave all to me; I will make a few calls to the War Office tomorrow.'

The magnificent grandeur of the centre salon hung with some of the finest art in the world made no impression on David as he crossed the foyer. His mind was on Penelope.

Robert, however, was thinking of the necklace. He could now honour his father’s last request to recover the Meyer Necklace back into the

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