"How would you like a brief vacation in ideal surroundings—winter sports, pleasing company, and a veritable mansion in which to relax? I have just such an invitation for you, Vance."
Philo Vance drew on his cigarette and smiled. We had just arrived at District Attorney Markham's office in answer to a facetious yet urgent call. Vance looked at him and sighed.
"I suspect you. Speak freely, my dear Rhadamanthus."
"Old Carrington Rexon's worried."
"Ah!" Vance drawled. "No spontaneous goodness of heart in life. Sad. So, I'm asked to enjoy myself in the Berkshires only because Carrington Rexon's worried. A detective on the premises would soothe his harassed spirits. I'm invited. Not flatterin'. No."
"Don't be cynical, Vance."
"But why should Carrington Rexon's worries concern me? I'm not in the least worried."
"You will be," said Markham with feigned viciousness. "Don't deny you dote on the sufferings of others, you sadist. You live for crime and suffering. And you adore worrying. You'd die of ennui if all were peaceful."
"Tut, tut," returned Vance. "Not sadistic. No. Always strivin' for peace and calm. My charitable, unselfish nature."
"As I thought! Old Rexon's worry does appeal to you. I detect the glint in your eye."
"Charming place, the Rexon estate," Vance observed thoughtfully. "But why, Markham, with his millions, his leisure, his two adored and adoring offspring, his gorgeous estate, his fame, and his vigor— why should he be worrying? Quite unreasonable."
"Still, he wants you up there instanter."
"As you said." Vance settled deeper into his chair. "His emeralds, I opine, are to blame for his qualms."
Markham looked across at the other shrewdly. "Don't be clairvoyant. I detest soothsayers. Especially when their guesses are so obvious. Of course, it's his damned emeralds."
"Tell me all. Leave no precious stone unturned. Could you bear it?"
Markham lighted a cigar. When he had it going he said:
"No need to tell you of Rexon's famous emerald collection. You probably know how it's safeguarded."
"Yes," said Vance. "I inspected it some years ago. Inadequately protected, I thought."
"The same today. Thank Heaven the place isn't in my jurisdiction: I'd be worrying about it constantly. I once tried to persuade Rexon to transfer the collection to some museum."
"Not nice of you, Markham. Rexon loves his gewgaws fanatically. He'd wither away if bereft of his emeralds… Oh, why are collectors?"
"I'm sure I don't know. I didn't make the world."
"Regrettable," sighed Vance. "What is toward?"
"An unpredictable situation at the Rexon estate. The old boy's apprehensive. Hence his desire for your presence."
"More light, please."
"Rexon Manor," continued Markham, "is at present filled with guests as a result of young Richard Rexon's furlough: the chap has just returned from Europe where he has been studying medicine intensively in the last-word European colleges and hospitals. The old man's giving a kind of celebration in the boy's honor—"
"I know. And hoping for an announcement of Richard's betrothal to the blue-blooded Carlotta Naesmith. Still, why his anxiety?"
"Rexon being a widower, with an invalid daughter, asked Miss Naesmith to arrange a house party and celebration. She did—with a vengeance. Mostly café society: weird birds, quite objectionable to old Rexon's staid tastes. He doesn't understand this new set; is inclined to distrust them. He doesn't suspect them, exactly, but their proximity to his precious emeralds gives him the jitters."
"Old-fashioned chap. The new generation is full of incredible possibilities. Not a lovable and comfortable lot. Does Rexon point specifically?"
"Only at a fellow named Bassett. And, strangely enough, he's not of Miss Naesmith's doing. Acquaintance of Richard's, in fact. Friendship started abroad—in Switzerland, I believe. Came over on the boat with him this last trip. But the old gentleman admits he has no grounds for his uneasiness. He's just nervous, in a vague way, about the whole situation. Wants perspicacious companionship. So he phoned me and asked for help, indicating you."
"Yes. Collectors are like that. Where can he turn in his hour of uncertainty? Ah, his old friend Markham! Equipped with all the proper gadgets for just such delicate observation. Gadget Number One: Mr. Philo Vance. Looks presentable in a dinner coat. Won't drink from his finger-bowl. Could mingle and observe, without rousing suspicion. Discretion guaranteed. Excellent way of detecting a lurking shadow—if any." Vance smiled resignedly. "Is that the gist of the worried Rexon's runes by long-distance phone?"
"Substantially, yes," admitted Markham. "But expressed more charitably. You know damned well that old Rexon likes you, and that if he thought you'd care for the house party, you'd have been more than welcome."
"You shame me, Markham," Vance returned with contrition. "I'm fond of Rexon, just as you are. A lovable man… So, he craves my comfortin' presence. Very well, I shall strive to smooth his furrowed brow."