ONCE UPON a time in a castle high on a hill lived a very old and very rich woman.

The old lady had been beautiful once, and even in her 80s her eyes were still brilliant, her figure trim, her ways enchantin;g, her wit sharp. She still loved land, diplomats and diamonds. Sometimes, she felt as though she were still a young enticing beauty, held prisoner inside an aged body.

Everyday, she'd look down the hill at all her lands and mansions. She had great enterprises, powerful friends, great admiration. But what were the glories of the world after the deaths of her loves: her husband and her son?

Then one day, when she was almost past hope, she found love again and happiness. Her fairy prince was disguised as a poor but handsome young Japanese man. . . .

And that's where the story of Henderson's castle of Meridian Hill begins.

The tale is true, or as true as memory will make it. The plot proves once again that even fairy tales, classic English mysteries, and Pygmalion myths blanch before true life:

Mysterious appearances, fraudulent heirs, lost fortunes, challenged wills, political intrigue, international plots, magnificent mansions, a besieged castle, a beautiful disinherited heiress, a 90-year-old grande dame, a poor but pure young man, and a cache of diamonds perhaps lost for ever.

This week, Jesse Shima, the hero, will be the honored guest and the principal speaker Thursday at the first annual founders dinner of the Columbia Historical Society in the garden of its Christian Heurich mansion. Shima, who had been living well but quietly in Washington, was recently rediscovered by the historian and Smithsonian Castle curator, James Goode, author of "Capitol Losses."

Now Shima is 80 years old, just a year or two younger than Mary Henderson when this story began. His face is fuller now, but unlined. He is not a tall man, but he carries himself with dignity and he speaks with authority. It's easy to see in him the handsome, polite young man who attracted Washington's reigning grand dame, though he doesn't look as mysterious as he did in the press clipping of the 1930s.

He remembers Mary Henderson, and those gilt-edged days of his youth, in great detail, though they happened a half-century ago. He told his story the other day sitting in his contemporary Japanese house facing Rock Creek Park. This is the first time Shima has told his story publicly, since the great screaming headlines in 1931 at the death of Mary Henderson.

For Jesse Shima the story begins in the early 1920s when he was about 19.

"I was born in Okinawa. At 14, my family came to Hawaii. I was too young to work on a plantation, so my dad sent me to school. I wanted to come to Washington. Hawaii was very small. I wanted to see something bigger. When I come to Washington, I had hardships. In Hawaii, there was lots of work for Japanese students.

"But in Washington, discrimination was strong against Orientals. It was the first time I had been discriminated against. I had a time to rent a room. The landladies wouldn't rent to Orientals. One said, 'I don't rent to Chinese.' I protested, 'I am Japanese.' 'That's worse,' she said. So I slept in the park or on the Mall. There were heavy benches here and there. One night, I met a policeman who sent me to the Central Union Mission on Union Steet between Sixth and Seventh. They charged 25 cents a week for a bed.

"Then, I found a room on top of a Chinese laundry in John Marshall Place for $5 a month. I couldn't go to school, as I had hoped. Too much money. My first job was in Stouffer's Sandwich Shop between H and I on 14th Street.I was the dishwasher. It was an awful job, steamy and hot. o

"Back then there were only about seven or eight Japanese in town, except for the 30 at the Japanese Embassy. One time, the embassy had a celebration, probably the emperor's birthday."

At the party, Shima met Mary (Mrs. John B.) Henderson, Washington's reigning grande dame. She was then past 80 but formidable still, despite her under-five-foot height. Shima didn't know who she was, but it was obvious that she was a person of great importance. Anyway, Shima had all the Oriental regard for age and especially for matriarchs, so he listened to her politely, and spoke loudly enough for her deaf ears to hear.

"She asked me all sort of questions.Then she gave me her name and address and said, 'Come see me, I have lots of work.' I didn't want to accept charity, so I didn't go to her house as I had said I would. I don't know why she took a fancy to me, I suppose she felt sorry for me.

"But three days later, when I came home from the sandwich shop, there was a long limousine outside the laundry. When I went upstairs, the man from the car followed me up to my door. He said he was Mrs. Henderson's footman, and he handed me a note asking me to come. I was a little afraid. After all, I was still a country boy. But he insisted I come. 'If you don't come,' he said, 'she'll come get you.' I was embarassed.

"As the car turned into the gate, I looked up and saw the great red stone Henderson castle. I was really afraid then. I said, 'Stop the car, I can't go in.' I wanted to get out and go back to my room over the laundry. He grabbed and held me and said, 'She's waiting.' She came to the front door to meet me. She was happy I came, and for the first time, I was too.

"She asked me if I was hungry.I was hungry, I never could eat at the sandwich shop, too steamy, but I said no, I was not. She took me up to her second-floor drawing room, and invited me to stay. I told her I didn't want to depend on anyone. But she said there was lots of work, in her office. I said, 'I am not qualified for officework. I am an expert in washing dishes.' She said, 'You will not work in the kitchen.' So I suggested, 'Well, maybe I could work in the garden.'"

Shortly after, she arranged for him to go to the National University law school for three years, and to study flying at Mt. Vernon Airways. She wanted him to study at the Battle Creek Sanitorium, where her friend Dr. Kellogg (of Kellogg's cornflakes fame) presided, but "by then I was working in the office and as I became more expert, I couldn't stay away."

In 1923, Mrs. Henderson's only son, John B. Henderson Jr., died. Mrs. Henderson insisted Shima come work in her estate office. "I told her, 'Those people in the office are more qualified than me.' But she said, 'Some are not trustworthy. There are lots to do work, but you manage everything.' So I did, for almost 10 years. I think now I was too young, too inexperienced."

Shima said, "She had experts to teach me how to talk, to walk, to behave in the dining and drawing room. All that I know and am today is because of her. She was better to me than my mother."

Shima lived in the castle with Mrs. Henderson. "We always ate together, usually just her and me. I had my own room, the one that was once her son's." u

Eating with Mrs. Henderson was an experience. She had early on become a vegetarian, a prohibitionist and a foe of tobacco. Shima remembers her old chauffeur, William Carter, telling him about the time, after Senator Henderson's death, when she had his entire cellar of rare wines and whiskeys poured down 16th Street. "I think she blamed alcohol for his death," Shima said. "William said there were people on the street trying to drink up the alcohol as it ran."

Mrs. Henderson's health views didn't stop with food and drink. "Twice a week, we would go to Rock Creek Park, by the mill, and walk," he remembers.

After her death, one newspaper reported the basement was full of exercise machines, one of them full of bulbs that lit up. "She kept them on the second floor when I was there," he said.

She loved to dance, and for years gave Monday afternoon tea dances in her ballroom. Once she woke Shima at 2 a.m. to dance.

She never talked to Shima about the men she had known in her long life, only the ambassadors.

She had a swimming pool, one of the first in town, though she spent much of the summer in Bar Harbor, Maine. Shima recalled that she objected to the shortness of Mrs. Calvin Coolidge's swimsuit. She wanted him to tell Mrs. Coolidge, but they finally compromised by having Mrs. Henderson's maid tell Mrs. Coolidge's maid.

Mrs. Henderson herself always wore long skirts, and made her women servants do likewise.

Working for Mrs. Henderson was often full of the unexpected. "One time," Shima said, "she had a new Cadillac. But she didn't like the black color. 'Why didn't you buy another color?' I asked her. 'But they didn't have the one I wanted,' she said." So she took Shima down to the Freer Gallery and showed him a Chinese vase that had the color she wanted, a deep purple. He had the Cadillac painted purple.

Another time, a dilapidated house stood near one of hers. She had Shima offer to paint the house, free, if she could choose the color to harmonize with hers. The owner refused. So Mrs. Henderson bought the house, at twice what it was worth. She bought 15 other shacks on 15th Street, and razed them to improve the neighborhood. She once offered to build an embassy free for the Japanese if they'd come to 16th Street, but they refused.

"Every morning," Shima said, "I would send the gardner from the castle to the White House to pick up all the trash on Sixteenth Street."

For Mrs. Henderson, the story began in the mid-1860s when she came to Washington, according to one report, to see senators. People say she enticed Sen. John B. Henderson of Missouri into a meeting by gazing at him soulfully from the balcony of the Senate. They were married in 1868.

Senator Henderson was quite a catch.Though originally a States Rights Democrat, he introduced measures abolishing slavery. After becoming a Republican, he cast the deciding vote not to impeach President Andrew Johnson. After that, he went home to Missouri, made his fortune and returned to Washington in 1889. He and his wife built what they called Boundary Castle (after Boundary Street, later Florida Avenue, then the boundary between the city of Washington and the District of Columbia). Everybody else called it Henderson Castle.

Early on, the Hendersons began to buy land around their castle, a total of six acres. In the remarkably fine book, "Sixteenth Street," by Sue A. Kohler and Jeffrey R. Carson for the Commission of Fine Arts, the authors write: "The location and design gave the impression that the castle was somehow strategic to the defense of the city, while the heights gave the occupants a psychological advantage over the ferret-like manueverings of those who resided below."

From their castle atop Meridian Hill, the Hendersons held royal audiences. In the great ballroom (Shima remembers it as being 100 feet long, 75 feet wide and 30 feet high -- the dining room, he says, was a bit smaller), they gave musicales and plays. The room had not ony a stage, but a balcony as well. Fiteen presidents and their ladies were entertained by the Hendersons.

Shima remembers the castle had a stable for 10 horses and a four-car garage.

Though Senator Henderson died in 1913, his widow continued to buy land on Meridian Hill, concentrating on a five block section. At one time she owned 300 lots, but once had to borrow to pay her taxes because all her capital was in land.

She commissioned architect George Oakley Totten to design the fine and fantastic mansions that now glorify the street: the Spanish, Polish, Mexican and Ghanaian embassies, the Pink Palace (Inter-American Defense Board), and others. She sold Congress the site of Meridian Park and talked them into the grandoise Italianate cascade that still tumbles down the hill, a great delight from her east windows. She gave the land for the Congressional Club and money to help build it as well as art and furnishings.

Not all of her dreams came true. The transit people persisted in putting buses on 16th Street, though she wrote a letter to the newspapers complaining that common people could then "peer into the boudoirs of the diplomats."

Congress, after renaming 16th Street the Avenue of the Presidents for her, changed it back when she was on vacation in Bar Harbor. Congress never accepted either of the two mansions she offered as a vice presidential residence.

Though she tried hard and commissioned various designs, neither a new White House (she thought the old one had but "a modest beauty") nor the Lincoln Memorial were ever built on Meridian Hill. She even failed to have a "double line of bust statues of equal size of all the presidents and vice presidents of the United States, to border the sides of 16th Street . . . " And the British and Japanese slipped away from her grasp and built on Massachusetts Avenue.

But she was still building ever more stately mansions when Shima came to live and work with her. And every detail was hers. "She checked every design, every room space," Shima remembers. "She liked a big impressive entrance and a very outstanding staircase, one that would go both left and right midway."

He remembers how she came to build a large house on 15th at Clifton Street. (The huge house, once an embassy, is now up for sale.)

"The city had plans," Shima said, "to continue Clifton Street from 14th through 16th. She wanted it stopped because she thought 'it would ruin our property.' So I said, why not build a house right where the street would come through. So she built the house in 1929. Then she wanted to give the house to the vice president. I worked for a year trying to get the Congress to accept it. We didn't want the house to stay vacant, so I moved into it with my six servants. The federal government was just about ready to accept it. We went to her summer home in Bar Harbor. Then Beatrice panicked."

With Mrs. Henderson out of town, Beatrice Henderson Wholean, her supposed granddaughter, filed a suit claiming the grande dame was mentally incompetent and shouldn't be allowed to disperse her property.

But even at 90, Mrs. Henderson was not be trifled with. She talked it over with Shima and said she didn't want to tell an old secret, but she thought it was the only way. She told Shima it went like this.

Sometime after the death of her son and his wife, William Carter, the chauffeur, once the buggy driver, and Beatrice were arguing. He shouted, "You are no more a Henderson than I am, and I'm black." Beatrice passed it off, but Mrs. Henderson overheard him and called him to explain. "I think she'd always had her doubts, because her son's wife was childless for some years. Mrs. Henderson called her daughter-in-law a 'stone woman.'"

"The senator had left in his will that if the son had a baby, the son was to inherit two-thirds of the property and Mary Henderson one-third. The son didn't care, but his wife, formerly Angelicia Schuyler Crosby, became panicked. She said, 'We must have a child.' So she and her husband moved to Balleston, W.Va. Shima said they would periodically hire a railroad car to bring Washington guests to visit. According to Shima, Carter said Angelicia would stuff padding in her clothes to make her look pregnant.

At the right time, the young Hendersons, according to Shima, dismissed all the servants (except for Carter, on loan from the Senator), so the house would be empty. Dr. William Fry, a physician who had a foundling home, arranged for a baby girl to be brought to them. Then the young couple came back to Washington with the new baby, saying it was theirs. Angelicia died hardly a year after. Her husband died in 1923, still silent on Beatrice's parentage. So Beatrice came to live in the castle. According to a newspaper of the time, though Mrs. Henderson dangled various diplomats in front of her, in 1927 Beatrice married an automobile salesman.

Shima says Mrs. Henderson had a sworn statement taken from Carter. A newspaper clipping of the period says Mrs. Henderson could find no record of Beatrice's birth in Charleston, W.Va., and later a nurse who had worked for Dr. Frye confirmed Carter's story.

Mrs. Henderson then adopted Beatrice, but the transaction was kept a secret by a friendly judge. When Beatrice filed the incompetency suit, Mrs. Henderson revealed the whole story and said that since the girl was over 19 when the "adoption" took place, it was not legal. Mrs. Henderson said she had established for Beatrice an irrevocable trust fund of $675,000 and securities valued at $300,000, and she was washing her hands of Beatrice. "She told me not to let her in the house," Shima said.

Meantime, Mrs. Henderson worried about Beatrice and the money. "Mrs. Henderson," Shima said, "told me we should spend as much money as possible. She said, "If you have as much money as I do, you can't spend it all." So I raised all the salaries of the employes -- then you could get quite a good chauffer for $50 a month."

Shima, looking straight ahead, his face under control, remembered how concerned Mrs. Henderson was about him near her end. "'You need to put something away,' she said. Many times she wrote checks for me for $500,000. Each time I threw them away. One time, it was a cool night, and we had a fire. We were sitting and talking. She gave me a check for half a million. I put it on the fire. Another time she gave me one for $500,000 and told me to put it in a Swiss bank. I tore it up. I told her, 'I can make my way on my own.' She said, 'You'll see, after my death, they'll all be after you.'"

Not long after the legal tangle with Beatrice, Mrs. Henderson had a stroke, and was partially paralyzed. Shima called doctors and nurses from Bar Harbor for 24-hour care. "I was so worried," he said. "And I didn't know if someone would accuse me of killing her."

Shima had the power of attorney for the household, real estate and the finances. He had to leave Mrs. Henderson to sign some papers in Washington. "When I came back, the doctor told me she was unconscious, but then she opened her eyes and said, 'You've come back. I didn't know what happened to you.' The next day she was dead."

Shima arranged her funeral cortege from the castle, with the lead car that of Frances and Henry Arnold, Mrs. Henderson's niece and nephew. Just as the cars pulled out of the castle grounds "a limousine with Beatrice dressed in black pulled in ahead of the Arnolds' and drove with the cortege to Rock Creek Cemetery, then sped away."

After her death, her will left Shima "a large sum," he said. "But we agreed to divide it among Beatrice, the Arnolds and me. I got enough to take care of me." The newspapers of the time reported he received $200,000 in cash and a trust plus $300 a year for 10 years. "She also gave me two houses, one was the Nicaraguan Embassy, the one that she wanted to be the vice president's residence."

In the papers of the time was a great furor about Shima's ownership, because at the time aliens were not allowed to own property in the District. He returned the embassy to the estate and received some money for it.

After Mrs. Henderson's death, Shima went to work for the Agriculture Department as a translator, took his pilot's license, and talked about going back to Japan with an airplane. But World War II came, with the devastation at Pearl Harbor. His pilot's license was revoked. Shima was locked up as an enemy alien here. When he was released, some 50 Japanese from the West Coast were resettled in Washington.

"I lent them all money to buy small grocery stores all over town," he said. "Of course, I charged them no interest. And I think they all eventually paid me back."

Shima had a large grocery here himself, and ran an aviation school for a time. He still owns the Tokyo restaurant on Connecticut Avenue as well as much other real estate. In 1939, he married Miyoko Tamesa, the first Japanese/American ever to have a Civil Service post. They have a daughter and a grandchild. They live in an expensive, comfortable house with a large Japanese-style garden.

Though life is good, he thinks every so often of the old days. And he wonders . . .

In Shima's memory, Mrs. Henderson is covered with diamonds. When she dressed up, a tiara encircled her white hair, necklaces hung around her once long and firm neck, bracelets jingled on those slim wrists, rings rubbed against each other on those firm fingers -- all encrusted with brilliant diamonds.

"Some months before she died, she asked me to come up to her bedroom. I didn't know what she wanted. We went through the bedroom and into her dressing room. She have me a metal tool to pull them out the shelves with. Behind was a cache, a hiding place full of diamonds and jewels I had never seen before: decorations, stickpins, rings, necklaces, brooches. After she had shown them to me, we closed it up again.

"Every so often, I wonder what happened to those diamonds. After she died, I was the only one left who knew of the secret hiding place. I didn't take the jewels. Where are they now?"

Did the auctioneers who sold off Mrs. Henderson's worldly goods in 1935 find them? If they did, it was never reported. Did the workmen who tore down Henderson Castle in 1949 find the diamonds? If so, they never told anyone. Or perhaps, the diamonds were never found, but bulldozed into the dirt and debris of the wreckage. Perhaps, even now, they lie under Beekman Place, the modest houses built in place of the castle (which doubtless sent Mrs. Henderson spinning in her grave).

The old newspaper clippings about Mary Henderson and her legal battles are crumbling now. The retaining wall and the gate posts are all that are left of her castle.But 16th Street is undergoing a revival. While it may never be the Avenue of the Presidents, her majestic mansions, still embassies, stand guard with Shima over her memory.

For Shima, the indomitable Mary Henderson will always be the fairy godmother who waved her magic checkbook so he would live happily ever after.