The great car, with its fittings of gold and ivory, drew up at the door of Colonel Deacon's house. The interior was ablaze with tiger lilies, and out from their midst stepped the fairest of them all--Madame de Medici, and swept queenly up the steps upon the arm of the cavalierly soldier.
All connoisseurs esteemed it a privilege to view the Deacon collection, and this afternoon there was a goodly gathering. Chairs and little white tables were dotted about the lawn in shady spots, and the majority of the company were already assembled; but when, in a wonderful golden robe, Madame de Medici glided across the lawn, the babel ceased abruptly as if by magic. She pulled off one glove and began twirling a great emerald between her slim fingers. It was suspended from a thin gold chain. Presently, descrying Annesley seated at a table with Lady Dascot, she raised the jewel languidly and peered through it at the two.
"Why!" exclaimed Rene Deacon, who stood close beside her, "that was a trick of Nero's!"
Madame laughed musically.
"One might take a worse model," she said softly; "at least he enjoyed life."
Colonel Deacon, who listened to her every word as to the utterance of a Cumaean oracle, laughed with extraordinary approbation.
There was scarce a woman present who regarded Madame with a friendly eye, nor a man who did not aspire to become her devoted slave. She brought an atmosphere of unreality with her, dominating old and young alike by virtue of her splendid pagan beauty. The lawn, with its very modern appointments, became as some garden of the Golden House, a pleasure ground of an emperor.
But later, when the company entered the house, and Colonel Deacon sought to monopolize the society of Madame, an unhealthy spirit of jealousy arose between Rene and his guardian. It was strange, grotesque, horrible almost. Annesley watched from afar, and there was something very like anger in his glance.
"And this," said the Colonel presently, taking up an exquisitely carved ivory Buddha, "has a strange history. In some way a legend has grown up around it--it is of very great age--to the effect that it must always cause its owner to lose his most cherished possession."
"I wonder," said the silvern voice, "that you, who possess so many beautiful things, should consent to have so ill-omened a curiosity in your house."
"I do not fear the evil charm of this little ivory image," said Colonel Deacon, "although its history goes far to bear out the truth of the legend. Its last possessor lost his most cherished possession a month after the Buddha came into his hands. He fell down his own stairs--and lost his life!"
Madame de Medici languidly surveyed the figure through the upraised emerald.
"Really!" she murmured. "And the one from whom he procured it?"
"A Hindu usurer of Simla," replied the Colonel. "His daughter stole it from her father together with many other things, and took them to her lover, with whom she fled!"
Madame de Medici seemed to be slightly interested.
"I should love to possess so weird a thing," she said softly.
"It is yours!" exclaimed the Colonel, and placed it in her hands.
"Oh, but really," she protested.
"But really I insist--in order that you may not forget your first visit to my house!"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"How very kind you are, Colonel Deacon," she said, "to a rival collector!"
"Now that the menace is removed," said Colonel Deacon with laboured humour, "I will show you my most treasured possession."
"So! I am greatly interested."
"Not even this rascal Rene," said the Colonel, stopping before a safe set in the wall, "has seen what I am about to show you!"
Rene started slightly and watched with intense interest the unlocking of the safe.
"If I am not superstitious about the ivory Buddha," continued the Colonel, "I must plead guilty in the case of the Key of the Temple of Heaven!"
"The Key of the Temple of Heaven!" murmured a lady standing immediately behind Madame de Medici. "And what is the Key of the Temple of Heaven?"
The Colonel, having unlocked the safe, straightened himself, and while everyone was waiting to see what he had to show, began to speak again pompously:
"The Temple of Heaven stands in the outer or Chinese City of Pekin, and is fabulously wealthy. No European, I can swear, had ever entered its secret chambers until last year. One of its most famous treasures was this Key. It was used only to open the special entrance reserved for the Emperor when he came to worship after his succession to the throne--that was, of course, before China became a Republic. The Key is studded almost all over with precious stones. Last year a certain naval man--I'll not mention his name--discovered the secret of its hiding-place. How he came by that knowledge does not matter at present. One very dark night he crept up to the temple. He found the Keeper of the Key-- a Buddhist priest--to be sleeping, and he succeeded, therefore, in gaining access and becoming possessed of the Key."
A chorus of excited exclamations greeted this dramatic point of the story.
"The object of this outrage," continued the Colonel, "for an outrage I cannot deny it to have been, was not a romantic one. The poor chap wanted money, and he thought he could sell the Key to one of the native jewellers. But he was mistaken. He got back safely, and secretly offered it in various directions. No one would touch the thing; moreover, although of great value, the stones were very far from flawless, and not really worth the risks which he had run to secure them. Don't misunderstand me; the Key would fetch a big sum, but not a fortune."
"Yes?" said Madame de Medici, smiling, for the Colonel paused.
"He packed it up and addressed it to me, together with a letter. The price that he asked was quite a moderate one, and when the Key arrived in England I dispatched a check immediately. It never reached him."
"Why?" cried many whom this strange story had profoundly interested.
"He was found dead at the back of the native cantonments, with a knife in his heart!"
"Oh!" exclaimed Lady Dascot. "How positively ghastly! I don't think I want to see the dreadful thing!"
"Really!" murmured Madame de Medici, turning languidly to the speaker. "I do."
The Colonel stooped and reached into the safe. Then he began to take out object after object, box after box. Finally, he straightened himself again, and all saw that his face was oddly blanched.
"It's gone!" he whispered hoarsely. "The Key of the Temple of Heaven has been stolen!"