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Sunday, May 26, 2024


The following is Chapter 3 from Agatha Christie’s 1928 detective mystery, The Mystery of the Blue Train, a Hercule Poirot mystery from the Project Gutenberg. 

Heart of Fire 

Rufus Van Aldin passed through the revolving doors of the Savoy, and walked to the reception desk. The desk clerk smiled a respectful greeting. 

"Pleased to see you back again, Mr. Van Aldin," he said. 

The American millionaire nodded his head in a casual greeting. 

"Everything all right?" he asked. 

"Yes, sir. Major Knighton is upstairs in the suite now." 

Van Aldin nodded again. "Any mail?" he asked. 

"They have all been sent up, Mr. Van Aldin. Oh! wait a minute." He dived into a pigeon hole, and produced a letter. "Just come this minute," he explained. 

Rufus Van Aldin took the letter from him, and as he saw the handwriting, a woman's flowing hand, his face was suddenly transformed. The harsh contours of it softened, and the hard line of his mouth relaxed. He looked a different man. He walked across to the lift with the letter in his hand and the smile still on his lips. 

In the drawing-room of his suite, a young man was sitting at a desk nimbly sorting correspondence with the ease born of long practice. He sprang up as Van Aldin entered. 

"Hallo, Knighton!" 

"Glad to see you back, sir. Had a good time?" 

"So-so!" said the millionaire unemotionally. "Paris is rather a one-horse city nowadays. Still—I got what I went over for." He smiled to himself rather grimly. 

"You usually do, I believe," said the secretary, laughing. 

"That's so," agreed the other. He spoke in a matter-of-fact manner, as one stating a well-known fact. Throwing off his heavy overcoat, he advanced to the desk. "Anything urgent?" 

"I don't think so, sir. Mostly the usual stuff. I have not quite finished sorting it out." 

Van Aldin nodded briefly. He was a man who seldom expressed either blame or praise. His methods with those he employed were simple; he gave them a fair trial and dismissed promptly those who were inefficient. His selections of people were unconventional. 

Knighton, for instance, he had met casually at a Swiss resort two months previously. He had approved of the fellow, looked up his war record, and found in it the explanation of the limp with which he walked. Knighton had made no secret of the fact that he was looking for a job, and indeed diffidently asked the millionaire if he knew of any available post. 

Van Aldin remembered, with a grim smile of amusement, the young man's complete astonishment when he had been offered the post of secretary to the great man himself. 

"But—but I have no experience of business," he had stammered. 

"That doesn't matter a cuss," Van Aldin had replied. "I have got three secretaries already to attend to that kind of thing. But I am likely to be in England for the next six months, and I want an Englishman who—well, knows the ropes—and can attend to the social side of things for me." 

So far, Van Aldin had found his judgment confirmed. Knighton had proved quick, intelligent, and resourceful, and he had a distinct charm of manner. The secretary indicated three or four letters placed by themselves on the top of the desk. 

"It might perhaps be as well, sir, if you glanced at these," he suggested. "The top one is about the Colton agreement—" 

But Rufus Van Aldin held up a protesting hand. "I am not going to look at a durned thing to-night," he declared. "They can all wait till the morning. Except this one," he added, looking down at the letter he held in his hand. And again that strange transforming smile stole over his face. 

Richard Knighton smiled sympathetically. "Mrs. Kettering?" he murmured. "She rang up yesterday and to-day. She seems very anxious to see you at once, sir." 

"Does she, now!" The smile faded from the millionaire's face. He ripped open the envelope which he held in his hand and took out the enclosed sheet. As he read it his face darkened, his mouth set grimly in the line which Wall Street knew so well, and his brows knit themselves ominously. 

Knighton turned tactfully away, and went on opening letters and sorting them. 

A muttered oath escaped the millionaire, and his clenched fist hit the table sharply. "I'll not stand for this," he muttered to himself. "Poor little girl, it's a good thing she has her old father behind her." He walked up and down the room for some minutes, his brows drawn together in a scowl. 

Knighton still bent assiduously over the desk. 

Suddenly Van Aldin came to an abrupt halt. He took up his overcoat from the chair where he had thrown it. 

"Are you going out again, sir?" 

"Yes; I'm going round to see my daughter." 

 Knighton asked, "If Colton's people ring up—" 

"Tell them to go to the devil," said Van Aldin. 

"Very well," said the secretary unemotionally. 

Van Aldin had his overcoat on by now. Cramming his hat upon his head, he went towards the door. He paused with his hand upon the handle. "You are a good fellow, Knighton," he said. "You don't worry me when I am rattled." 

Knighton smiled a little, but made no reply. 

"Ruth is my only child," said Van Aldin, "and there is no one on this earth who knows quite what she means to me." A faint smile irradiated his face. He slipped his hand into his pocket. "Care to see something, Knighton?" He came back towards the secretary. 

From his pocket he drew out a parcel carelessly wrapped in brown paper. He tossed off the wrapping and disclosed a big, shabby, red velvet case. In the centre of it were some twisted initials surmounted by a crown. He snapped the case open, and the secretary drew in his breath sharply. 

Against the slightly dingy white of the interior, the stones glowed like blood. "My God! sir," said Knighton. "Are they—are they real?" 

Van Aldin laughed a quiet little cackle of amusement. "I don't wonder at your asking that. Amongst these rubies are the three largest in the world. Catherine of Russia wore them, Knighton. That centre one there is known as Heart of Fire. It's perfect—not a flaw in it." 

"But," the secretary murmured, "they must be worth a fortune." 

"Millions" said Van Aldin nonchalantly, "and that is apart from the historical interest." 

"And you carry them about—like that, loose in your pocket?" 

Van Aldin laughed amusedly. "I guess so. You see, they are my little present for Ruthie." 

The secretary smiled discreetly. "I can understand now Mrs. Kettering's anxiety over the telephone," he murmured. 

But Van Aldin shook his head. The hard look returned to his face. "You are wrong there," he said. 

"She doesn't know about these; they are my little surprise for her." He shut the case, and began slowly to wrap it up again. "It's a hard thing, Knighton," he said, "how little one can do for those one loves. I can buy a good portion of the earth for Ruth, if it would be any use to her, but it isn't. I can hang these things round her neck and give her a moment or two's pleasure, maybe, but—" He shook his head. "When a woman is not happy in her home—" 

He left the sentence unfinished. 

The secretary nodded discreetly. He knew, none better, the reputation of Ruth's husband, the Hon. Derek Kettering. Van Aldin sighed. Slipping the parcel back in his coat pocket, he nodded to Knighton and left the room. 

Actress Jamie Murray from the 2005 film of the same name is shown wearing the Heart of Fire diamond

Imperial crown of Catherine the Great of Russia.
The Heart of Fire flawless ruby is the centerpiece.

Original "Le Tren Bleu" in Paris, Circa 1910

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