Read CHAPTER XII - THE SILVER SPIDER of The Golden Face A Great 'Crook' Romance , free online book, by William Le Queux, on ReadCentral.com.

That night, after a chat with Lola, I sat in my room at the palace and could not help recollecting how strangely the Marchesa had started when my name had been uttered.

Did she know of my connection with “The Golden Face”?  If she did, then she might naturally suspect me and hold me at arm’s length.  Yet if she feared me, why should she have asked me, as well as Lola and Madame, to call at the Palazzo Romanelli?

I had thanked her, and accepted.

Therefore on Tuesday night, with Lola and Madame both smartly dressed, I went to the huge, old fifteenth-century palace, grim and prison-like because of its heavily barred windows of the days when every palazzo was a fortress, and within found it the acme of luxury and refinement, its great salons filled with priceless pictures and ancient statuary, and magnificent furniture of the Renaissance.

About thirty people were present, most of them the elite of Naples society, all the ladies being exquisitely dressed.  My hostess expressed delight as I bowed and raised her hand to my lips, in Italian fashion, and then I introduced my two companions.  A few moments after I found myself chatting with the pretty Flavia, who, to my annoyance, seemed to be very inquisitive concerning my movements.

As I stood gossiping with her, my eyes fell upon a little Florentine table of polished black marble inlaid with colored stones forming a basket of fruit, a marvel of Renaissance art, and upon it there stood a silver model of a gigantic tarantula, or spider, the body being about seven inches long by five broad, with eight long curved legs, most perfectly copied from nature.

Flavia noticed that I had seen it.

“That’s our Silver Spider!” she laughed.  “It’s the ancient mascot of the Romanelli.”

I walked over and examined it, but without, of course, taking it in my hand.  Then I remarked upon its beautiful workmanship, and we turned away.

It was a gay informal assembly.  Among the men there were several naval and military attaches from the Embassies, as well as one or two Deputies with their wives.  Once or twice I had brief chats with the Marchesa, who, of course, was the center of her guests.  One man, tall, with deep-set eyes and a well-trimmed black beard, seemed to pay her particular attention, and on discreet inquiry as to who he was, I discovered him to be the well-known banker, Pietro Zuccari, who represented Orvieto in the Chamber.

Now the reason of our visit to the Marchesa’s was to see what manner of company she kept, but I detected nothing suspicious in any person in that chattering assembly.  Yet I could not put away from myself what Fra Pacifico had told me in the silence of the cloisters of San Domenico.

Again I looked upon the handsome face of that gay society woman and wondered what secret could be hidden behind that happy, laughing countenance.

After leaving the Palazzo Romanelli that night I resolved to “fade out” and watch.

Now Admiral the Marquis Romanelli, who was in charge of the important port of Naples, had, during the late war, returned to his position as a high naval officer, and with all his patriotism as the head of a noble Roman house, had done his level best against the enemy until the proclamation of peace.

Wherever one went one heard loud praises of “Torquato,” as he was affectionately called by his Christian name by the populace.

After due consideration I decided that we should move from Naples to the pretty little town of Salerno at the other end of the blue bay, and there at the Hotel d’Angleterre, facing the sapphire sea, I spent several delightful days with the girl I so passionately loved.

“I cannot see the reason for all this inquiry, Mr. Hargreave,” she said one evening, as we were walking by the moonlit sea after we had dined and Madame had retired.  “Why should father wish you to watch the Marchesa so narrowly?  How can she concern him?  They are strangers.”

I was silent for a few seconds.

“Your father’s business is a confidential one, no doubt.  He has his own views, and I am, after all, his secretary and servant.”

“I ­I often wish you were not,” the girl blurted forth.

“Why?” I asked in surprise.

“Oh!  I don’t really know.  Sometimes I feel so horribly apprehensive.  Madame is always so discreet and so mysterious.  She will never tell me anything; and you ­you, Mr. Hargreave, you are the same,” she declared petulantly.

“I cannot, I regret, disclose to you facts of which I am ignorant,” I protested.  “I am just as much in the dark concerning the actual object of our mission here as you are.”

“Do you think Madame knows anything of your mission here?” asked the girl.

“I don’t expect so.  Your father is a very close and secretive man concerning his own business.”

“Ah! a mysterious business!” she exclaimed in a strange meaning voice.  “Sometimes, Mr. Hargreave ­sometimes I feel that it is not altogether an honest business.”

“Many brilliant pieces of business savor of dishonesty,” I remarked.  “The successful business man cannot always, in these days of double-dealing chicanery and cut prices, act squarely, otherwise he is quickly left behind by his more shrewd competitors.”

And then I thought it wise to turn the subject of our conversation.

Salerno is only thirty miles from Naples, therefore I often traveled to the latter place ­indeed, almost daily.

In Italian they have an old saying, “A chi veglia tutto si rivela” ("To him who remains watchful everything becomes revealed").  That had long been my motto.  With Lola and Madame Duperre I was in Italy in order to learn what I could concerning the woman whom Fra Pacifico had so bitterly denounced.

One warm afternoon when, without being seen, I was watching the Marchesa’s pretty daughter Flavia who had strolled into the town, I saw her meet, close to the Cafe Ferrari, that tall, black-bearded, middle-aged banker Pietro Zuccari, whom I had seen at their palazzo.  They walked as far as the Piazza San Ferdinando and entered the Gambrinus, where they sat at a little table eating ices, while he talked to her very confidentially.  As I idled outside in a shabby suit and battered straw hat which I had bought, I saw this great Italian banker gesticulating and whispering into her ear.

The girl’s attitude was that of a person absorbing all his arguments in order to repeat them, for she nodded slowly from time to time, though she uttered but few words; indeed, only now and then did she ask any question.

I could, of course, hear nothing.  But what I was able to observe aroused my curiosity, for the meeting between the girl and the middle-aged banker was palpably a clandestine one.

On emerging, they parted, he walking in the direction of the railway station, while the girl strolled homeward.  Was she carrying a message to her mother from the famous financier?

The excitement he had betrayed interested me.  I noticed that he had once clenched his fist and brought it down heavily before her as they sat together.

For a whole month we remained at Salerno, and a delightful month it proved, for I had long chats and walks with Lola, and we became even greater and more intimate friends.  Madame Duperre noticed it but said nothing.

I went each day to slouch and idle in Naples, to sit before cafes and eat my frugal meal at one or other of the osterie which abound in the city, or to take my aperatif at the liquoristi, Canevera’s, Attila’s, or the others’.

I confess that I was mystified why I should have been sent to watch that woman.

So clever, so well-thought-out and so insidious were all Rayne’s methods to obtain information of the intentions and movements of certain people of wealth, that I knew from experience that there was some cleverly concealed scheme afoot which could only be carried out after certain accurate details had been obtained.

I was torn between two intentions, either to reappear suddenly as a passing traveler and call at the Palazzo Romanelli, or still to lie low.

Many times I discussed it with Lola and Madame.

“Zuccari is always with the Marchesa,” I said one morning as we sat together at dejeuner at Salerno.  “I can’t quite make things out.  I have been watching intently, yet I can discover nothing.  He sent a message to her by Flavia the other day ­an urgent and defiant message, I believe.  I hear also that the Admiral goes to Rome to-night,” I added.  “He has been suddenly called to the Ministry of Marine.”

“Then you will follow, of course?  We will remain here to keep an eye upon the Marchesa,” said Madame.

“You do not suspect the Admiral?” I asked.

“Not at all,” she said.  “It is the woman we have to watch.”

“And also the pretty daughter?” I suggested.

With that she agreed.  We were, however, faced by a strangely complex problem.  Here was a woman ­one of the most popular in all Italy ­denounced by the humble monk of San Domenico as a dangerous adventuress.  And yet she was the strongest supporter of the popular Pietro Zuccari ­the wealthy man by whose efforts the finances of Italy had been reestablished after the war.

After a long conference it was arranged that Madame and Lola should go to Rome and there watch the Admiral’s movements, while I remained in Naples ever on the alert.

Sometimes I became obsessed by the feeling that I was off the track.  Once or twice I had received “ferma in posta” ­confidential letters from Rudolph Rayne and also from Duperre.  To these I replied to an unsuspicious address ­a library in Knightsbridge.

By reason, however, of keeping observation upon the Palazzo Romanelli I gained considerable knowledge concerning those who came and went.  I knew, for instance, that the pretty Flavia was in the habit of meeting in strictest secrecy a good-looking young lieutenant of artillery named Rinaldo Ricci.  Indeed, they met almost daily.  It struck me as more than curious that on the day after the Admiral had left hurriedly for Rome Zuccari should arrive from Bari, and having taken a room at the Excelsior Hotel, dine at the palazzo.

My vigil that night was a long one.  I managed to creep up through the grounds and peer through the wooden shutters into the fine, well-furnished salon of the palazzo.  It was unoccupied, but upon a table on the opposite side of the room stood the Silver Spider, the strange but exquisite mascot of the Romanelli.  No doubt some legend was attached to it, just as there are legends to many family heirlooms.

That night I made a further discovery, namely, that when Zuccari left he returned to his hotel, where Flavia’s secret lover had a long chat with him.

Next day a strange thing happened.  While watching the Marchesa I saw her, about eleven o’clock in the morning, walking alone in the Corso Vittorio when she accidentally encountered the banker Zuccari.  They passed each other as total strangers!

Why?  There was some deep motive in that pretended ignorance of each other’s identity.  Could it be because they feared they were being watched?  And yet was not Zuccari a frequent visitor at the Palazzo Romanelli, for it was there I had first met him?  In any case, it was curious that Zuccari and young Rinaldo Ricci should be friends apparently unknown to either the Marchesa or to Flavia.

In order to probe the mystery I decided that it would be necessary to learn more of Zuccari’s movements.  Therefore, having watched him call at the Palazzo Romanelli, I waited for him to leave, and at ten o’clock that same night he suddenly departed from Naples for the north.  I traveled by the same train.  Arrived at Rome, the banker remained at the buffet about half an hour, when he joined the express train for Milan, and all through the day and the night I traveled, wondering what might be his destination.

On arrival at Milan, I kept observation upon him.  From the chief telegraph office he dispatched a telegram and then drove to the Hotel Cavour, where he engaged a room.  At once I telegraphed to Madame to bring Lola and join me at the Hotel de Milan.  They arrived next day and I told them of my movements.

Three days later Zuccari left the Cavour and traveled to the frontier, little dreaming that he was being so closely followed.  Madame and Lola went by the same train, but having discovered that he had bought a ticket for Zurich, I left by the train that followed.

On arrival at Zurich, I was not long in rejoining my companions, for we had a rendezvous at the Savoy, when I learnt that Zuccari was staying at the Dolder Hotel, up on the Zurichberg above the Lake.

“A man named Hauser is calling upon him this evening,” Madame told me.  “We must watch.”

This we did.  More respectably dressed than when in Naples, I was smoking my after-dinner cigar in the handsome hall of the Dolder Hotel when a tall, well-set-up man, whose fair hair and square jaw stamped him as German-Swiss, inquired of the hall porter for Signor Zuccari, and was at once shown up to the banker’s private sitting-room, where they remained together for nearly an hour.

As I sat waiting impatiently below, I wondered what was happening.

I had already reported our movements to Rayne, who had, in a telegram, expressed great surprise that the Deputy should have left Italy and gone to Zurich ­of all places.

Zuccari, on descending the stairs with his friend Hauser, confronted me face to face, but it was apparent that he did not recognize me.  Hence I took courage and, later on, engaging a room, moved to the same hotel.  Next morning I saw the banker meet the man Hauser a second time, and together they took a long walk on the outskirts of the town above the Lake.

From the concierge I extracted certain valuable information in exchange for the hundred-franc note I slipped into his hands.  It seemed that the banker Zuccari frequently visited that hotel, and on every occasion the man Hauser came to Zurich to see him.

“They are conducting some crooked business ­that is my belief, m’sieur!” the uniformed man told me in confidence.

“Why do you suspect that?” I asked quickly.

“Well,” he said confidentially, “Isler, the commissary of police, who is now at Berne, once pointed him out to me and said he was a friend, and believed to be one of the accomplices, of Ferdinando Morosini, the notorious jewel-thief who was caught in Milan six months ago and sent to fifteen years at Gorgona.”

At the mention of jewel theft I at once pricked up my ears.

“Then Hauser may be a receiver of stolen jewels, eh?” I whispered.

“I would not like to say that, m’sieur, but depend upon it he is a person to be gravely suspected.  What business he has with the banker I cannot imagine.”

I knew Morosini by repute.  I had heard Rayne mention him, and no doubt he was a member of the gang who had blundered and fallen into the hands of the police.  Was it in connection with this incident that I had been sent to Italy to make inquiries?

I told Madame when alone what I had discovered, whereat she smiled.

“I expect you have discovered the truth,” she said.  “We must let Rudolph know at once.”

To telegraph was impossible, therefore I sat down and wrote a long letter, and then I waited inactive but anxious for a reply.

It came at last.  He expressed himself fully satisfied, but urged me to continue my investigations regarding the handsome wife of the Marchese.

“Be careful how you act,” he added.  “If they suspected you of prying something disagreeable might happen to you.”

I was not surprised at his warning, for I knew the character of some of the international crooks who were Rayne’s “friends.”

But surely the banker Zuccari could not be a crook?  If he were, then he was a master-criminal like Rayne himself.  If so, what was the motive of his close association with the Marchesa Romanelli?  I had noticed when at the palazzo that he seemed infatuated with her, yet she no doubt little dreamed of his active association with such a person as Hauser.

It seemed quite plain that whatever the truth the Admiral had no suspicion of his wife.

Zuccari and Hauser still remained in Zurich, so, though I had arranged with Madame and Lola to return with them to Naples, I sent them back alone and remained to watch.

On the night of their departure I was tired and must have slept soundly after a heavy day, when I was suddenly awakened by a strong light flashed into my face, and at the same instant I saw a hand holding a silken cord which had been slowly slipped beneath my ear as I lay upon the pillow.

For a second I held my breath, but next moment I realized that I was being attacked, and that the cord being already round my neck with a slip-knot, those sinewy hands I had seen in the flash of light intended to strangle me.

My only chance was to keep cool.  So I grunted in pretense of being only half-awake, and turning very slightly to my side, my hand slowly reached against my pillow.  At any second the cord might be drawn tight when all chance of giving the alarm would be swept away from me.  Yet my assailant was deliberate, apparently in order to make quite certain that the cord around my neck should effect its fatal purpose.

Of a sudden I grasped what I had against my pillow ­a small rubber ball ­and suddenly shooting out my hand in his direction, squeezed it.

A yell of excruciating pain rang through the hotel, and he sprang back, releasing his hold upon the cord.

Then next moment, when I switched on the light, I found the man Hauser dancing about my room, his face covered with his hands ­blinded, and his countenance burnt by the dose of sulphuric acid I had, in self-defense, squirted full into it.

For defense against secret attack the rubber ball filled with acid Rayne always compelled me to carry, as being far preferable to revolver, knife or sword-cane.  It is easily carried, easily concealed in the palm of the hand, makes no noise, and if used suddenly is entirely efficacious.

My assailant, blinded, shrieking with pain, and his face forever scarred, quickly disappeared to make what excuse he might.  Later I found that he had previously tampered with the brass bolt of my door by removing the screws of the socket, enlarging the holes and embedding the screws in soft putty so that on turning the handle and pressing the door the socket gave way and fell noiselessly upon the carpet!

This attempt upon me at once proved that I was on the right scent, and according to Rayne’s instructions I that day followed Madame and Lola back to Salerno.

On changing trains at the Central Station at Rome I bought a newspaper, and the first heading that met my eyes was one which told of a mysterious robbery of the wonderful pearls of the Princess di Acquanero.

With avidity I read that the young Princess, as noted for her beauty as for her jewels, the only daughter of the millionaire Italian shipowner Andrea Ottone, of Genoa, who had married the Prince a year ago, had been robbed of her famous string of pearls under most mysterious circumstances.

Two days before she had been staying at the great Castello di Antigniano, near Bari, where her uncle, the Baron Bertolini, had been entertaining a party of friends.  On dressing for dinner she found that her jewel-case had been rifled and the pearls, worth twenty thousand pounds sterling, were missing!

“The police have a theory that the guilty person was introduced into the castello by one of the many servants,” the report went on.  “The thief, whoever it was, must, however, have had great difficulty in reaching the Princess’ room, as the Baron, knowing that his lady guests bring valuable jewelry, always sets a watch upon the only staircase by which the ladies’ rooms can be approached.”

With the paper in my hand the train slowly drew out of Rome on its way south.  My mind was filled with suspicion.  I was wondering vaguely whether the Marchesa Romanelli had been among the guests, for I recollected those words of Fra Pacifico that “the woman had committed sacrilege in the House of God.”

Could it be possible that he knew the Marchesa to be a thief who had stolen some valuable church plate from one or other of the ancient churches in Italy?  If so, then, though the wife of the Admiral, she was also a thief.

On arrival at Salerno I took Madame aside, and telling her of my adventure with the man Hauser, I showed her the newspaper and declared my suspicions.

“It may be so,” she said.  “If she is so friendly with this banker whose past is quite obscure, it may be her hand which takes the stuff and passes it on to Zuccari, who in turn sells it to Hauser.”

With that theory I agreed.

On the following day I took train into Naples, and that afternoon I called upon the Marchesa.

Fortunately I found her alone, and when I was shown into her salon I thought she looked rather wan and pale, but she greeted me affably and expressed delight that I should call before returning to England.

As we chatted she let drop, as I expected she would, the fact that she had been staying at the Castello di Antigniano.

“You’ve seen in the papers, I suppose, all about the pearls of the Princess di Acquanero?” she went on.  “A most mysterious affair!”

I looked the pretty woman straight in the face, and replied: 

“Not so very mysterious, Marchesa.”

“Why not?” she asked, opening her big, black eyes widely.

“Not so mysterious if I may be permitted to look inside that ornament over there ­the heirloom of the Romanelli ­the Silver Spider,” I said calmly.

“What do you mean?” she cried resentfully.  “I don’t understand you.”

I smiled.

“Then let me be a little more explicit,” I said.  “Have you heard of a man named Hauser?  Well, he made an attempt upon my life.  Hence I am here this afternoon to see you.  May I lift the body of the Silver Spider and look inside?”

“Certainly not!” she cried, facing me boldly.

“Then you fear me ­eh?”

“I do not fear you.  I don’t know you!” she cried.

I laughed, and said: 

“Then if not, why may I not be permitted to look inside your husband’s family heirloom?”

She was silent for a moment.  My question nonplussed her.  I was, I confess, bitter because of the deliberate attempt to kill me.

“I will not allow any stranger to tamper with our Silver Spider!” she cried resentfully.

“Very well.  Then I shall take my own course, and I shall inform your husband that you stole the Princess’s pearls, that your banker friend acts as intermediary in your clever thefts, and that Hauser disposes of the jewels in Amsterdam.”

“I ­I ­” she gasped.

“I know everything,” I said, while she looked around bewildered.  “I know that you are playing a crooked game even with those who played straight with you before your marriage to the Marchese.  He is in ignorance of your past.  But I know it.  Listen!” and I paused and looked straight into her eyes.

“You were a widow with a young daughter before you married the Marchese.  That was nine years ago.  To him you passed yourself off as the widow of an Italian advocate named Terroni, of Perugia; but you were not.  You are Austrian.  Your name is Frieda Hoheisel, and you were an adventuress and a thief!  You married a certain man who is to-day in a monastery at Signa in the Val d’Arno, and though you pose as the loving wife of one of Italy’s premier admirals, you are a noted jewel-thief, and commit these robberies in order to supply your bogus banker friend Zuccari with funds.  Now,” I added, “I will take the Princess’s necklace from the Silver Spider and you will, in my presence, pack it up and address it to her.  I will post it.”

“Never!  I risked too much to get it!” she cried, her face aflame.

“Very well.  Then within an hour your husband and the police will know the truth.  Remember, I have been suspected of making inquiries by your friends and have very nearly lost my life in consequence.”

“But ­oh!  I can’t ­”

“You shall, woman!” I thundered.  “You shall give back those stolen pearls!”

And crossing to the table whereon stood the Silver Spider, I opened it, and there within reposed the pearls in a place that nobody would suspect.

I stood over her while she packed them into a common cardboard box and addressed them to the Princess in Rome.  At first she demurred about her handwriting, but I insisted.  I intended her to take the risk ­just as I had taken a risk.

And, further, I compelled her to order her car, and we drove to the General Post Office in Naples, where I saw that she registered the valuable packet.

The anonymous return of the pearls was a nine days’ wonder throughout Italy; but the Marchesa never knew how I had obtained my information, and never dreamed that I had come to her upon a mission of inquiry from the one person in all the world whom she feared, the man in whose clutches she had been for years ­the mysterious “Golden Face.”

When, with Lola and Madame, I returned home a week later and explained the whole of my adventures, Rayne sat for a few moments silent.  Then, as I looked, I saw vengeance written upon his face.

“I suspected that she was playing me false, and selling stuff in secret through that fellow Zuccari!  She is carrying on the business by herself.  I now have proof of it ­and I shall take my own steps!  You will see!”

He did ­and a month later the Marchesa Romanelli was arrested and sent to prison for the theft of a pair of diamond earrings belonging to a fellow-guest staying at one of the great palaces of Florence.

It was a scandal that Italy is not likely to easily forget.