The dinner party
by Nickolas Monsarrat
A full thirty years ago, I myself was fifteen. That is not really important, though it was important to me at the time, on the threshold of superb adult world. More important to this story, my uncle Octavian was then a rich man.
He was a charming host whose villa on the Riviera was an accepted meeting of the great. And he was a hospitable, contented, and most amiable man — until January 3rd, 1925.
There was nothing special about that day in the life of my uncle Octavian, except that it was his fifty-fifth birthday. As usual on such day, he was giving a dinner party, a party for twenty people. All of them were old friends. I, myself, aged fifteen, was deeply privileged, I was staying with my uncle at his exquisite villa, and as a special concession on this happy day, I was allowed to come down to dinner. It was exciting to me to be admitted to such company, which included a newspaper proprietor and his fabulous American wife; a recent prime minister of France and a Habsburg prince and princess of exceptional eloquence.
At that age, on holiday from school, you will guess that I was staggered. Even today, thirty years later, one may fairly admit that the company was distinguished. But I should also stress that they were all old and intimate friends of my uncle Octavian.
Towards the end of a wonderful dinner when dessert had been brought in and the servants had left, my uncle learnt forward to admire a magnificent diamond ring on the princess’ hand.
Across the table the newspaper proprietor leant across and said: ‘May I also have a look, Therese?’ She smiled and nodded. Then she took off the ring and held it out to him. There exclamations of delight and admiration. The ring was passed from hand to hand.
It was some twenty minutes later when the princess stood up, giving the signal to the ladies to withdraw. She looked round us with a pleasant smile. Then she said: ‘Before we leave you, may I have my ring back?’
I remember my uncle Octavian murmuring: ‘Ah, yes — that wonderful ring!’ Then there was a pause while each of us looked expectantly at his neighbor. Then there was an aggravating silence. The princess was still smiling, though less easily. She was unused to asking for things twice.
When no one responded and the silence continued I still thought that it could only be a practical joke and that one of us — probably the prince himself — would produce the ring with a laugh, perhaps chiding her for her nonchalance. But when nothing happened at all, I knew that the rest of the night would be wretched. I am sure that you can guess the sort of scene that followed. There was the dismay, immediate and shattering, of the guests — all of them old and intimate friends. There was the freezing politeness of the prince, the near-tears of the princess. There were the demands to be searched, the overturning of chairs, the minute scrutiny of the carpet, and then the whole room.
All these things happened, but they didn’t bring the princess’ ring back again. It had vanished. Uncle Octavian’s face was pale and tremendously tense, as if he had been dealt a mortal blow. No servants had entered the room. No one had left it for a moment. The thief was one of us; one of my uncle Octavian’s cherished friends.
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The uncle’s villa was_______.
- in modern style
- tastefully made
- in the suburb
- of huge size
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