The Queen of Sheba’s Belt
The Queen of Sheba’s Belt
“I suppose there is nothing more to be said.”
The man had risen with her. He was a tall, handsome man on the right side of thirty; his straight back and squared shoulders spoke eloquently of the army. Now his fine face was hardened by the pain which he had occasioned, and which he would willingly have spared this beautiful woman.
She was humble enough now.
“No, I do not think there is much to be gained by talking it over,” said the man with a nervous little laugh. “I wonder at myself, that I can discuss it so dispassionately, but it is only because I want to be fair to you, Anna – I beg your pardon!” He corrected himself hastily. “It is a trick one does not readily lose – Lady Wensley.”
“You think I have treated you badly?” she said, leaning over the balustrade by his side.
She spoke quickly, for she knew that their time together would be all too brief for her purpose.
Yet, she noticed wonderingly, there was no reproach in his voice.
“The first news I had of your marriage came by the very post by which I expected to receive your final wishes about the marriage settlement. You had given me no indication, no hint of your changed views. Why, you were married by the time the letter reached India. It was a pretty hard and bitter blow for me,” he said gravely.
“You have survived it very well, Ronald,” she said with a little smile.
He turned his head; his face was stern; there was no reflection of the amusement she had shown.
“God gives men strength in the hour of their necessity,” he said soberly. “Do you remember your ‘Vanity Fair’? You remember that awfully good chap who would have been the hero of the story, if Thackeray could have tolerated a hero; and you remember what he said to the girl whose whims and fancies he had endured for so long? You probably don’t. He said ‘You are unworthy of me.’ It was as I was finishing your letter for the second time, that that blessed phrase came to me. Trite, wasn’t it?” he said with a short laugh. “Yet, like most trite things, it was very comforting.”
She hung her head.
“You are very hard; you do not understand.”
“I confess I do not; at least, I did not then,” said the man.
“You do not know what it is to be poor,” she said in a low voice.
He laughed again.
“I’ve hardly ever known what it is to be anything else,” he said with a little chuckled of genuine amusement.
“And now it is all over, and you’ve forgotten?”
“Yes, it is all over,” he agreed.
“And you have forgotten?”
“You think women are horrid?”
There was a little inquiring tilt to her eyebrows, as she raised her face to his with the question.
“I do not think that women are horrid,” he said, “though I am perfectly sure, by whatever standard one judges, that you were not a nice as you might have been. Let it go at that.”
He turned as if to re-enter the house, but she laid her hand on his arm.
“One moment, Ronald,” she said. “Suppose – Suppose…”
She stopped. Her breath came quickly, there was a strange fire in her eyes.
“Suppose I have regretted all that I did, and that I see now, with a clear vision, my folly and its fruits? Suppose,” she dropped her voice to an eager whisper, “that I count love above all things? Ah! Listen to me!”
She caught his arm, for he would have moved a little away from her in his embarrassment.
“Money isn’t everything, Ronald. It was wicked of me, and cruel of me, I know, to do what I did; but I wanted something more than love, and now I want love more than everything.”
The diamond star upon her white bosom rose and fell quickly; her shining eyes were uplifted to his.
He shook his head slowly, There was pity in the face turned to hers.
“It is too late,” he said gently, “even were I blackguard enough, it is too late! For if you did not love me, I believe I could not love you as a man should lave – “
She stepped back with a little cry.
She had never doubted his love for her. His words were like a blow; harder to endure.
“There is someone else?”
He dropped his eyes before hers; he found himself talking a little hoarsely and cleared his throat.
“There is someone else,” he said. “I think that, at last, I have found the real thing.”
Though the French window which opened from the ball room to the terrace, there came a tall, big moulded man. The light from the room touched his white hair, and gave the pair a momentary glimpse of a red, jovial face.
“Hullo! Is that you, Anna?” he called.
He saw her figure standing aloof from the other, and hastened towards her.
“Come along, my dear, the Rajah was asking for you. Hullo, Grey!” he said genially to the other; “come inside, my lad. You will find, when you reach my age, that a sentimental passion for moon light effects will be tempered by a natural fear of rheumatism. Brrrrrr!” he shivered.
“I will come in one minute, John,” said the woman. “Captain Grey was just telling me about his adventures in India and you’ve interrupted at the most exciting part.”
“I’m sorry,” said her husband with a quick laugh.
He turned his kindly blue eyes upon the younger man.
“You fellows who have adventures to tell,” he said ruefully, “have a tremendous advantage over us poor stay-at-home fogeys. Yet the Rajah was promised a glimpse of that treasure of his. There’s adventure enough there – even for you, Grey,” he said.
“I will come in.”
“One moment, Captain Grey,” said lady Wensley, desperately. “I wanted to ask you just one thing.”
Her husband stood for a moment irresolutely, and then, as he realized that he was a little de trop, he made a graceful retreat.
“Don’t stay too long, the air is chilly,” he called over his shoulder.
She waited until his big form had disappeared into the brilliantly illuminated room, then turned to her companion.
“What is her name?” she asked quietly.
Ronald Grey hesitated.
“It would be hardly fair…” he said.
“Are you engaged to her of aren’t you?” she asked, almost roughly.
“I am engaged,” he said simply.
She laughed; it was not a laugh that was good to hear. It told of the disappointment, chagrin, humiliation and thwarted designs of the woman. It told too of the reawakened love, perhaps of its very birth, since she had never felt so deeply as now.
“Who is she?” she asked again.
Before he could reply, the slim figure of a girl stepped out on to the terrace, and came towards them.
“Ronald,” she cried, “we are waiting for you.”
She stepped up to him and laid her hand on his arm.
There was no need for lady Wensley to ask any further. The man’s silence was eloquent. He had wished to spare her the humiliation of knowing that Marjorie Douglas had supplanted her in his heart.
Marjorie was Anna Wensley’s cousin – a beautiful child who had blossomed, as it seemed, in a day to womanhood. She was fairer than Lady Wensley; as tall, as graceful, and, of her colouring, more beautiful. Her eyes sparkled with laughter as she spoke; she was all excitement.
“Oh Anna,” she cried, “aren’t you longing to see this wonderful belt of the Rajah’s?”
The woman pulled herself together with a great effort.
“I’m not particularly keen,” she said.
She knew that the tete-a-tete was finished. What further need was there for any talk between them? She knew the worst; she had offered something and that something had been rejected.
She fell in naturally by Ronald’s side, and walked back with him into the room.
The dancing had ceased; the guests were gathered in one corner of the room about the swarthy figure of the Rajah of Jhiopore. It was the Coronation year, and to Sir John Wensley had fallen the duty of entertaining one of the richest of India’s potentates. They had met when Sir John had been on a shooting expedition, and he had welcomed the suggestion of the India Office that he should take under his wing for protection and guidance this stout and kindly Eastener.
The Rajah had had the benefit of an Oxford education, and was, at once a pleasing and an accommodating guest.
As the little party entered the room, his Highness was talking to a tall, clean shaved man, of distinguished appearance. The hair about his temples was grey; there was a certain strength in the set of his jaw, but humour shone in the grey eyes that looked out upon the world from under shaggy black eyebrows.
The Rajah’s deep laugh sounded high above the babel of talk.
“This will amuse you, Sir John,” he called, as he caught sight of the figure of his host.
“What is that?” asked Sir John with a smile. “Anything Claude Trennion says is calculated to amuse me.”
“I don’t know that it is particularly amusing,” drawled Trennion, “though I suppose even a policeman is entitled to his jape. I was telling the Rajah that he ought to be jolly careful of that belt in the house of an antiquarian, as you are, Sir John, of such enthusiastic tastes.”
“Well, the Rajah hasn’t corrupted me yet,” smiled Sir John, “though possibly after I have seen this wonderful belt of his I shall be filled with greed and envy.”
“You shall see it now.”
The Rajah got up from his chair and beckoned a servant.
“Will you tell my secretary that I wish to see him,” he said.
The, turning to the little throng about him, he said seriously:
“It is rather a business seeing the Queen of Sheba’s belt. You see, it is one of my family heirlooms. I brought it to London with me because the British Museum people were most keen on preparing a replica, and though my faithful subjects tell me, from time to time, that I am the most admirable of men – that I am the very light of the heavens, and the rich soil beneath their feet – I have not the same childlike faith in their integrity as I have in the staid gentlemen at your great national museum.”
With a swift glance he looked around. His eye lighted on Marjorie, and he nodded.
“You, Miss Douglas, shall wear this belt. It looks its best upon somebody. You can have no idea of the fascination of the jewel until you see it worn by a beautiful woman.”
The words of the Indian sent a quick flush to the girl’s face, though the compliment had been kindly meant. Whatever embarrassment she may have felt was relieved at that moment by the arrival of the dark skinned secretary of the Rajah.
They exchanged a few words in Hindustani, and then with a deep salam the secretary left.
Trennion watched the scene curiously. He had come down from London that day at the invitation of Sir John. He had welcomed the change. Too much of Scotland Yard is not good for the health of an Assistant Commissioner, and work had been very heavy during the past few months, as a result of the Coronation festivities.
He took an idle interest in people; they were his chief and solitary “subject.” Human nature he found more engrossing than any other kind of actor.
He fell in at the rear of the little party which trailed behind the Rajah and his henchmen. They made their way through the long corridor of Wensley Hall, and up the broad stairway to the Rajah’s suite. There was nothing in the furnishing or decoration of the apartment to suggest the abiding place of one of India’s richest men; for Sir John knew the Rajah’s tastes sufficiently well to avoid ostentation, and indeed, the stout little man who ruled the Province of Jhiopore neither desired Eastern luxury or missed it.
There were two rooms communicating. The inner was his Highness’s sleeping apartment; the outer his sitting room, and, for the time being, his state office.
He bade them wait a little while and disappeared into the bedroom. A few minutes later he came out carrying a long, flat case of red morocco. He laid it upon the table in the centre of the room, under the branching lights of an electrolier, and opened it.
The little party which thronged about the table uttered cries of surprise and delight.
There, upon its blue velvet cushion lay the Queen of Sheba’s belt. It was a great breast-plate of dull gold set about with uncut diamonds and emeralds; on either side, flush with the breast of the wearer, were two bosses thickly encrusted with pearls and emeralds.
He lifted it gingerly from its case and weighed it reflectively in his hands.
“This weighs seven pounds,” he said, “which rather disproves the theory that the new woman is better developed physically than was her sister of olden days.”
He nodded to Marjorie and she stepped forward, a little uncomfortably, but smiling.
“May I be your lady’s maid?” he said, and with his deft hands he fastened the great belt about her waist.
It fitted her perfectly. The ancient fasteners behind, working as truly as they did in the days of Solomon’s queen, snapped into their places: the jeweled shoulder-straps fitted true into their little slots, which the dead and gone workmen of Babylon had fastened.
She made a gorgeous figure standing there in the full glare of the lights.
Ronald, watching her, felt a glow of pride in her loveliness, and their eyes met in one understanding and happy glance.
Lady Wensely had intercepted that glance, and something gripped at her heart and stirred the very foundations of her being. With a superhuman effort she retained control of herself.
“Very pretty, Marjorie,” she drawled. “you look as if you had just stepped off the stage of the Gaiety, or,” with an almost imperceptible shrug, “from the floor of a Covent Garden ball. What is the value of this wonderful thing, Rajah?”
The little man looked up, showing his white teeth in a smile.
“It would be difficult to value it from the point of view of an antiquarian.” He glanced at Sir John and the baronet nodded. “But taking a purely material view, if one weighed of the gold and valued the gems according to the standard of Hatton Garden, that belt is worth 200,000 pounds.’
There was a little gasp of astonishment.
“Oh, take it off please,” said Marjorie nervously, “I don’t like to wear anything so valuable, even for a few moments. One of the emeralds may drop out.”
The Rajah shook his head.
“Enjoy the sensation for a moment,” he said. “Remember as you stand there, that Sheba’s queen wore that belt probably before the great Solomon himself.”
“Please take it off,” she said.
She had gone suddenly white. Some premonition of evil had come to her, and Trennion on whom no sign was lost, caught a glimpse of the face of his hostess, and wondered what this girl had done to earn that brief and fleeting malevolence which gleamed from the older woman’s eyes.
With deft fingers the Rajah released the belt, and the girl, looking a little white, smoothed out the creases in her crumpled dress with a hand that trembled.
“It gave me quite an uncanny feeling,” she said, smiling nervously. “Wasn’t it absurd of me!”
“Other people have had that feeling,” said the Rajah drily. “People with stronger nerves than you, Miss Douglas.”
He replaced the belt in its case and disappeared into the bedroom with it; by and by he returned.
“What did you think of it?” he asked Sir John.
“It is a magnificent piece of work,” said the antiquarian, shaking his head in admiration. “I didn’t have the opportunity I should have liked to have had of examining it.”
“You shall have that tomorrow,” said the Rajah. “To tell the truth, I am as chary of showing it as most people are of wearing it. It wasn’t fair, really, that I should ask Miss Douglas to put it on. It was only because I, myself, have no faith in these ridiculous superstitious” – he shrugged his shoulders contemptuously – “but I should not have asked other people to share my skepticism.”
“Is there a legend?” asked Trennion.
“There is an obscure and rambling legend to the effect that anyone wearing it is liable to bad luck, or something of the sort. It is not a particularly powerful talisman, either for good or evil.”
They made their way back to the ball room.
It was a small house party that had gathered at Wensley Hall. This restriction as to the number of guests had been necessary, since Sir John had been in some doubt as to the retinue the Rajah would bring, and in what state he would live. It had come as a pleasant surprise to find this genial ruler so simple a man. The Rajah of Jiopore, with his big round body and his big round face, was a pleasant surprise to most people with whom he was brought into contact. He was one of the best read men of his class; a keen sportsman, and a good fellow by all standards.
Trennion was thinking this as he strolled to the library. The “policeman” was no dancing man, and his idea of rest took the very common place and intelligent shape of a book, a pipe, and an easy chair. It was all he asked of the world – just then.
He found a comfortable chair in one of the window spaces. Sir John was something of a modernist so far as his domestic comfort was concerned, and those nooks which in ordinary country houses are breeding places of pneumonia and influenza, were at Wensley Hall the coziest of corners.
The room was empty when he came in. One light was burning and he did not trouble to switch on the remainder. He had no wish to read: he lit his pipe, and stretched himself on the big settee, looking through the window at the soft vista of park land mysteriously illuminated by the yellow moon.
He was a tired man. He had come to Wensley Hall because he was tired. His head nodded; the pipe in his mouth fell with a little thud on to the carpeted floor and he dozed.
He could hardly have fallen asleep before he was awakened by the sound of voices.
He opened his eyes. Marjorie stood in the center of the room, an agitated Marjorie, with her hands clasped. She faced a small bald-headed man with melancholy side whiskers.
“I can’t pay you yet, Mr. Callit,” she was saying; “I had no idea you would want paying so soon.”
“Well, Miss,” said the man, “I’m sorry the bother you, but I really must get money in. I’ve had some big demands, otherwise I shouldn’t have bothered you. I’ve come down specially from London, tonight, to see you.”
“But I can’t pay you,” said the girl in despair. “I can’t! I should never have had those things if I had thought you were going to bother so soon. My dividends aren’t due for another two months, and it is impossible for me to do what you ask.”
The little man shook his head, helplessly.
As for Trennion lying there, an unwilling eavesdropper, he was in an unenviable position, and would have given no little sum to have been well out of the room beyond earshot.
He knew exactly what the girl would feel if she found him there, or if he were to make his presence known.
“Can’t you get the money anywhere, Miss?” asked the man desperately; “you don’t know what a hole I am in. Eighty pounds won’t be anything to a lady like you.”
“Oh, you ought never to have come,” said the girl. “I wish to Heaven I had never bought clothes at your wretched place. It is abominable of you.”
“Can’t you borrow the money?”
“How dare you!” she flamed. “How dare you suggest that I should borrow money! Whom do you imagine I could borrow money from? You have to wait.”
“I can’t wait, Miss,” whined the man, wringing his hands. “I tell you I am in a pretty bad position. What about Captain Grey?”
She drew herself up and looked down at the other coldly.
“I am going to ring for the servant,” she said; “you had better go. You are behaving disgracefully. You have no right to mention anybody’s name to me.”
“I must have the money,” said the man in a panic. “That’s what I came for, and I am not going away till I get some.”
Trennion thought he heard a slight noise near the door; his ears were unusually sensitive, and they caught that which the girl had evidently missed.
He looked up quickly and bit in his lip to suppress an exclamation. In the shadow of the portiere he saw a woman, and that woman was Lady Wensley. She had been there all the time – he saw that. From where she stood she could have seen him and she turned her head, but her attention was too closely occupied by the scene she was witnessing.
Trennion guessed that she had been there all the time. He had no illusions as to the motive of human beings. His police work had destroyed much of his faith in the common honesty of humanity. She had followed the girl, he guessed, with intent to discover the meaning of, what must have been to her, a suspicious visit. And now she stood there, listening intently.
“I will send you something tomorrow,” said Marjorie at last. “I can do no more than that.”
The man hesitated.
“Are you sure, Miss—“ he began.
“I tell you I will send you money tomorrow,” said the girl with a little stamp of her foot; “and you must be content with that.”
“Well—“ he rubbed his hat irresolutely on his sleeve, “that will have to satisfy me, Miss, I suppose,” he said dubiously. “I’ll trust you. If you can let me have it before twelve o’clock tomorrow, it will make all the difference in the world to me.”
She said no more. The interview was finished.
Trennion saw the figure by the portiere slip through the door. He saw, too, the puzzled look which came into the girl’s face at the sight of the open door – a bewilderment which was succeeded by a look of apprehension. Without a word she threw the door wide open and passed through; and the man followed, closing the door behind him.
Trennion sat up, picked up his pipe from the carpet, and walked into the middle of the room.
An Assistant Commissioner of Police is not usually perturbed by the frailties or the unexpected impecuniosities of his fellows. That Marjorie Douglas should be damned neither shocked nor amused him. At first he thought he had come upon a surprising streak of extravagance in the girl, but the words of the agitated trades-man had dismissed that idea from his mind. He saw exactly her position – a position in which any woman might find herself.
He wondered whether he should offer her the money. Eighty pounds was not a great sum, but to make the offer would be to make the admission of knowledge. It was a delicate situation. He was pondering the matter over, his chin on his palm, when the door opened hurriedly, and Anna Wensley came in.
She stopped dead when she saw him.
“Mr. Trennion!” she said, and then, with a little nervous jerk of her shoulders, came farther into the room. “I wanted a book; these dancing people are boring me. How long have you been here?”
She spoke quickly and jerkily.
“I’ve just come in,” replied Trennion untruthfully.
“Did you meet – anybody?” she asked.
“No! I saw your cousin, Marjorie. Who was the queer old gentleman with her?”
“Oh! He is a man who has come down from town.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m afraid poor Marjorie is rather extravagant. You won’t tell anybody, will you?” she asked pleadingly.
“You may be sure I shall tell nobody,” he said.
He wondered exactly what her object was in telling him this and how much of the secret she was prepared to divulge.
“You see, Marjorie has been spending a tremendous amount of money on jewellery and things.” Her gestures spoke her disapproval more admirably than words could have conveyed it. “I think the young girls of today are tremendously foolish. It is so easy to get credit, and the,” another shrug, “to find a method of raising money on the jewels. I don’t say,” she said quickly, “that that is what Marjorie has done – but so many girls do it. It’s rather shocking, isn’t it?” she cooed.
“It’s very shocking indeed,” he said gravely. “In fact, it is an offence under the law in certain cases.”
“I know. But you are not going to arrest dear Marjorie and take her away?” she smiled, “are you? No! The man you saw was from Stangs, the jeweler. However, one oughtn’t to talk about it, but I know I can trust you, dear Mr. Trennion.”
“Oh yes,” he said with a smile, “you can trust me.”
What object could she have, he wondered, in lying to him? He did not doubt that the man was from a firm of dressmakers. Why should she wish to represent her cousin so blackly? Why had she come in so hurriedly and shown such evidence of dismay at finding him there?
These were the problems which helped to keep him awake longer than he desired that night. They occupied him at spare moments on his journey to London the next day.
Once back in Scotland Yard his engrossing work was sufficient to take his mind from the little comedy which he had seen enacted at Wensley Hall. He was an enthusiast in the pursuit of criminal research. He found his work already defined for him that day, and spent a fascinating twelve hours taking the measurements and the weights of a number of known criminals, who had been transported in closed vans to Scotland Yard, to his office, for that purpose.
The work took him two days. It was two days of minute measurements, two days of patient recording.
On the second day he had finished his work and had gone back to his club for dinner. In the middle of the meal a club waiter brought him a telegram, and he opened it.
His eyebrows rose as he read the message it contained;
“Queen of Sheba’s Belt has been stolen from Wensley Hall. Can you come along and help us investigate?
He laid the telegram down by his plate and whistled softly to himself.
* * * * * *