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The scene is the south of France. An English lady has been murdered and a beautiful American girl has disappeared. Discovered is a body with a severed hand and an opal bracelet somehow connected to devil worship. Clearly a case for Inspector Hanaud or the Surete and his English friend Mr. Ricardo. Can Hanaud solve the two mysteries in time to prevent a second murder? Readers will be kept in a constant state of mystification until the surprising denouement.
When Mr. Julius Ricardo spoke of a gentleman–and the word was perhaps a thought too frequent upon his tongue–he meant a man who added to other fastidious qualities a sound knowledge of red wine. He could not eliminate that item from his definition. No! A gentleman must have the great vintage years and the seven growths tabled in their order upon his mind as legibly as Calais was tabled on the heart of the Tudor Queen. He must be able to explain by a glance at the soil why a vineyard upon this side of the road produces a more desirable beverage than the vineyard fifty yards away upon the other. He must be able to distinguish at a first sip the virility of a Chateau Latour from the feminine fragrance of a Chateau Lafite. And even then he must reckon that he had only learnt a Child’s First Steps. He could not consider himself properly equipped until he was competent to challenge upon any particular occasion the justice of the accepted classification. Even a tradesman might contend that a Mouton Rothschild was unfairly graded amongst the second growths. But the being Mr. Ricardo had in mind must be qualified to go much farther than that. It is probable indeed that if Mr. Ricardo were suddenly called upon to define a gentleman briefly, he would answer: “A gentleman is one who has a palate delicate enough and a social position sufficiently assured to justify him in declaring that a bottle of a good bourgeois growth may possibly transcend a bottle of the first cru.”
Now Julius Ricardo was a man of iron conscience. The obligations which he imposed upon others in his thoughts, he imposed in his life upon himself. He made it a point of honour to keep thoroughly up to date in the matter of red wine; and he mapped out his summers to that end. Thus, on the Saturday of Goodwood week he travelled by the train to Aix-les-Bains. There he found his handsome motor-car which had preceded him, and there for five or six weeks he took his absurd cure. Absurd, for the only malady from which he suffered was that he was a bad shot. He shot so deplorably that his presence on a grouse-moor invariably provoked ridicule and sometimes, if his host wanted a big bag, contumely and indignation. Aix-les-Bains was consequently the only place for him during the month of August. His cure ended, he journeyed with a leisurely magnificence across France to Bordeaux, planning his arrival at that town for the end of the second week of September. At Bordeaux he refitted and reposed; and after a few days, on the eve of the vintage, he set out on a tour through the hospitable country of the Gironde; moving by short stages from chateau to chateau; enjoying a good deal of fresh air and agreeable company; drinking a good deal of quite unobtainable claret from the private cuvees of his hosts; and reaching early in October the pleasant town of Arcachon with a feeling that he had been superintending the viniculture of France. This was the curriculum. But as he was once dipped amongst agitations and excitements at Aix, so on another occasion he was shaken to the foundations of his being during his pilgrimage through the vineyards. He was even spurred by the touch of the macabre in these events to a rare poetic flight.
“The affair gave me quite a new vision of the world,” he would declare complacently. “I saw it as a vast opal inside which I stood. An opal luminously opaque, so that I was dimly aware of another world outside mine, terrible and alarming to the prisoner in the opal. It was what is called a fire opal, for every now and then a streak of crimson, bright as the flash of a rifle on a dark night, shot through the twilight which enclosed me. And all the while I felt that the ground underneath my feet was dangerously brittle just as an opal is brittle … “ and so on and so on. Mr. Ricardo, indeed, embroidered and developed and expounded his image of an opal to a degree of tediousness which even in him was phenomenal. However, the crime did make a stir far beyond the placid country in which it ran its course. The records of the trial do stand wherein may be read the doings of Mr. Ricardo and his friend Hanaud, the big French detective, and all the other people who skated and slipped and stumbled and shivered in as black a business as Hanaud could remember.
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