Read CHAPTER XIII - THE LISTENER of The Sins of Severac Bablon , free online book, by Sax Rohmer, on ReadCentral.com.

Sheard sat with both elbows resting upon his writing-table.  A suburban quietude reigned about him, for the hour was long past midnight.  Before him was spread out the final edition of the Gleaner and prominent upon the front page appeared:-

SIR LEOPOLD JESSON AND
MR. HOHSMANN
FALL INTO LINE

With a tact which was inspired by private information from a certain source, the Gleaner had pooh-poohed the story of the mysterious cards received by the guests at Julius Rohscheimer’s.  The story had leaked out, of course, but Sheard was in no way responsible for the leakage.

Frantically, representatives of the Gleaner’s rivals had sought for confirmation from the lips of the victims; but, as had been foreseen by the astute Sheard, no confirmation was forthcoming.  There had been an informal council held at the urgent request of Rohscheimer, whereat it had been decided that for the latter to appear, now, in the light of a victim of Severac Bablon, would be for him to throw away such advantages as might accrue-to throw a potential peerage after his lost L100,000!

Baron Hague had been coerced into silence, and had left for Berlin without seeing a single newspaper man.  Mr. Elschild had persisted that his donation was entirely a voluntary one.  Jesson had been most urgent for placing the true facts before Scotland Yard, but had finally fallen in with Rohscheimer’s wishes.

“You see, Jesson,” the latter had argued, “I’ll never get my money back.  It’s gone as completely as if I’d burnt it!  All I’ve got to hope for is a peerage; and I’d lose that if I started crying.”

“I agree,” Antony Elschild had contributed, “Rohscheimer had suddenly become a popular hero!  So that a title is all the return he is ever likely to get for his money.  It is popularly expected that Hohsmann and yourself will also subscribe.  You must remember that owing to the attitude of a section of the Press it is not generally believed that Severac Bablon has anything to do with this burst of generosity!”

Jesson had muttered something about “the Gleaner,” and a decision had been arrived at to organise a private campaign against Severac Bablon whilst professing, publicly, that he was in no way concerned in the swelling of the Gleaner fund.

Now, Jesson and Hohsmann had both sent huge cheques to the paper, and interviews with the philanthropic and patriotic capitalists appeared upon the front page.  Sheard had not done either interview.

Encouraged by their amazing donations, the general public was responding in an unheard-of manner to the Gleaner’s appeal.  The Marquess of Evershed had contributed a long personal letter, which was reproduced in the centre of the first page of every issue.  The Imperialistic spirit ran rampant throughout Great Britain.

Meanwhile, Mr. Oppner’s detectives were everywhere.  Inspector Sheffield, C.I.D., was not idle.  And Sheard found his position at times a dangerous one.

He stood up, walked to the grate, and knocked out his pipe.  Having refilled and lighted it, he tiptoed upstairs, and from a convenient window surveyed the empty road.  So far as he could judge, its emptiness was real enough.  Yet on looking out a quarter of an hour earlier, he had detected, or thought he had detected, a lurking form under the trees some hundred yards beyond his gate.

His visit to the Astoria, the morning before, had been in response to an invitation from Severac Bablon, but divining that he was closely watched, he had sent the message to Gale-an American friend whom he knew to have just arrived-which had fallen into the hands of Mr. Aloys.  X. Alden.  Sheard had actually had an appointment with Gale, and had rung him up later in the morning-gaining confirmation of his suspicions, in the form of Gale’s story of the empty envelope.

Then, at night, his American friend had been followed to the house and followed back again to the hotel.  This had been merely humorous; but to-night there existed more real cause of apprehension.  Sheard had received a plain correspondence card, bearing the following, in a small neat hand: 

     “Do not bolt your front door.  Expect me at about one o’clock A.M.”

For a time it had been exciting, absorbingly interesting, to know himself behind the scenes of this mystery play which had all the world for an audience.  But it was a situation of quite unique danger.  Severac Bablon was opposed to tremendous interests.  Apart from the activity of the ordinary authorities, there were those in the field against this man of mystery to whom money, in furtherance of their end, was no object.

Sheard realised, at times-and these were uncomfortable times-that his strange acquaintance with Severac Bablon quite conceivably might end in Brixton Prison.

Yet there are some respects wherein the copy-hunter and the scalp-hunter tally.  The thrill of the New Journalism has enlisted in the ranks of the Fleet Street army some who, in a former age, must have sought their fortune with the less mighty weapon.  A love of adventure was some part of the complement of Sheard; and now, suspecting that a Pinkerton man lurked in the neighbourhood, and uncertain if his wife slept, he awaited his visitor, with nerves tensely strung.  But there was an exquisite delight tingling through his veins-an appreciation of his peril wholly pleasurable.

Faintly, he heard a key grate in the lock of the front door.  The door was opened, and gently closed.

Sheard stood up.

Into the study walked Severac Bablon.

He was perfectly attired, as usual; wore evening-dress, and a heavy fur-lined coat.  His silk hat he held in his hand.  As he stood within the doorway, where the rays from the shaded lamp failed to touch his features, he seemed, in the semi-light, a man more than humanly handsome.

“The house is watched,” began Sheard-and broke off.

A shadow had showed, momentarily, upon the cream of the drawn casement-curtains.  Someone was crouching on the lawn, under the study window.

“Did you see that?” jerked the pressman.  “Somebody looked in!  The curtain isn’t quite drawn to at that corner.”

“My dear Sheard”-Severac Bablon’s musical voice was untroubled by any trace of apprehension-“there is no occasion to worry!  Mr. Aloys.  X. Alden looked in!”

“But

“Had it been Inspector Sheffield there had been some cause for excitement.  Inspector Sheffield, if I am rightly informed, holds a warrant for my arrest.  Mr. Alden is an unofficial investigator.”

“But he can call a constable!”

“Reflect, Sheard.  If he calls a constable, what happens?”

“You are arrested!”

“Not so; but I will grant you that much for the sake of argument.  To whom would the credit fall?”

“Patently, Mr. Alden.”

“Wrong!  You know that it is wrong!  The official service would reap every gain!  Believe me, Sheard, Mr. Alden will not reveal my presence here to a living soul!  He may try to trap me when I leave, but there will be no clamouring on the door by members of the Metropolitan Police force, as you seemingly apprehend!”

Severac Bablon threw himself into the big arm-chair, and lighted a cigarette-a yellow cigarette.

“The trick you played upon Alden yesterday was such as no man with a sense of humour could well have resisted,” he said.  “But it was indiscreet.”

“I know.”

“Suspicion pointed to you as the perpetrator of the card trick at Rohscheimer’s.  You must not run unnecessary risks.”

“It was a thrilling moment for me, when I leant over to Miss Hohsmann, my right hand extended for the salt or something of the kind, and my left stretched behind her chair!”

“Jesson, of course, was looking in the opposite direction?”

“I selected a moment when he was talking to Lady Vignoles, and those shaded table lights helped me very much.  I could just reach the table, and I intentionally touched Salome’s hand with mine, in laying down the card.”

“She actually saw your hand!”

“I fancy not.  She felt my fingers touch hers, I think.  She turned so quickly that Jesson turned, too, and just as she was taking the card up.”

“Critical moment.”

“Not in the least.  My object would have been as well served if the card had gone no further.  But my infernal sense of humour prompted me to make a bid for complicating the mystery.  I dropped my arm, of course, as Jesson turned to her, and it never occurred to Salome that the hand which had placed the card beside her was any other than that of her neighbour on the left, Jesson.  Before she could address him, or he address her, I inquired if I might examine the card.  Jesson continued his conversation with Lady Vignoles, and the ‘second notice’ passed all around the table.”

“Excellent!  Do you know, Sheard, these childish little conjuring tricks help me immensely!  Can you picture Julius Rohscheimer cowering throughout a whole night before the rod of a trousers-stretcher projecting from a wardrobe door!”

“Was that the solution of the ‘patriotic’ mystery?”

“Certainly.  Adeler, who was concealed in the wardrobe, armed with the necessary written threats, made his escape directly Rohscheimer’s cheque was in his hand-leaving the rod to mount guard whilst you got the announcement into print and induced the Marquess to pay an early morning visit.”

Severac Bablon’s handsome face looked almost boyish as he related how the financier had been forced to play the part of a patriot.  Sheard, watching him, found new matter for wonderment.

This was the man who claimed to command the destinies of eight million people-the man who claimed to wield the power of a Solomon.  This was Severac Bablon, the most inscrutably mysterious being who had ever sown wonderment throughout the continents, the man who juggled with vast fortunes as Cinquevalli juggles with billiard-balls!  This was the man whose great velvety eyes could gleam with uncanny force, whose will could enthrall hypnotically, for whom the police of the world searched, for whose apprehension huge rewards were offered, whose abode was unknown, whose accomplices were unnumbered, to whom no door was locked, from whose all-seeing gaze no secret was secret!

It was difficult, all but impossible, to realise.

“Yet I am he,” said the melodious voice.

Sheard started as though a viper had touched him.  He stared at his visitor in wide-eyed amazement.

“Heavens!  Was I thinking aloud?”

“Practically.  Your mind was so intensely concentrated upon certain incidents in my career-see, your pipe is out-that, in a broad sense, I could hear you thinking!”

Sheard laughed dryly, and relighted his pipe.  Severac Bablon’s trick of replying to unspoken questions was too singular to be forgotten lightly.

“Mr. Hohsmann is now of my friends,” continued the strange visitor.  “You received the paragraph?  Ah!  I see it appears in your later edition.”

“But Jesson?”

“Sir Leopold can never be my friend, nor do I desire it.  There is an incident in his career -You understand?  I do not reproach him with it.  It should never have been recalled to him had he held his purse-strings less tightly.  But it served as a lever.  It was a poor one, for, though he does not know it, I would cast stones at no man.  But it served.  He has made his contribution.  I begin to achieve something, Sheard.  The Times has a leader in the press showing how the Jews are the backbone of British prosperity, and truer patriots than any whose fathers crossed with Norman William.”

He ceased speaking, abruptly, and with his eyes, drew Sheard’s attention again to the window.  Since Severac Bablon’s arrival, indeed, the journalist had glanced thither often enough.  But, now, he perceived something which made him wonder.

There was a street lamp at the corner of the road, and, his own table-lamp leaving the further window in shade, it was possible to detect the presence of anything immediately outside by its faint shadow.

Something round was pressed upon a corner of the lower pane.

Severac Bablon stepped to the table and scribbled upon a sheet of paper:-

“He has some kind of portable telephonic arrangement designed for the purpose, attached to the glass.  No doubt he can follow our conversation.  He may attempt to hold me up as I leave the house.  He cannot enter, of course, or we could arrest him on a charge of housebreaking!  You have a back gate.  If you will permit me to pass through your domestic offices and your garden, I will leave by that exit.  Continue to talk for some minutes after I am gone.  Do not fear that there is any evidence of my having been here.  Alden can prove nothing.”

Replacing the pencil on the tray: 

“I want you to join me at a little supper on Wednesday evening‚” said Severac Bablon.  “Practically all our influential friends will be present

He ignored Sheard’s head-shakes and expressive nods directed towards the window.

“There is an old house which I have rented for a time at Richmond.  It is known as ‘The Cedars,’ and overlooks the Thames.  The grounds are fairly extensive, and bordered by two very quiet roads.  In fact, it is an ideal spot for my purpose.  I will send you further particulars”-he glanced towards the window-“in writing.  We meet there on Wednesday at nine-thirty.  Can I rely upon you?”

“Yes,” said Sheard, wondering at the other’s indiscretion, “unless I wire you to the contrary.  I might be unable to turn up at the last moment, of course.”

“You are nervous!” Severac Bablon smiled, and slipped from the room.

“On the contrary,” said Sheard, addressing the window.  “There is nothing I enjoy better than an evening in a haunted house!”

(Perhaps, he argued, Alden was not absolutely certain of his visitor’s identity.  He did not know at what point in the conversation the telephone device had come into action.  It was a pity to waste words; he might as well endeavour to throw the eavesdropper off the scent, in addition to covering Severac Bablon’s retreat.)

“Let us hope, Professor,” he resumed, with this laudable intention, “that the Society for Psychical Research will be the richer in knowledge for our experiment on Wednesday evening!”

Mr. Aloys.  X. Alden, with his ear to the ingenious little “electric eavesdropper,” experienced an unpleasant chill upon hearing the visitor within addressed as “Professor.”

He had conceived the idea that Sheard-whom he strongly suspected, might hold interviews with the mysterious and elusive Severac Bablon in the small hours of the morning, at his own house, when the rest of the household were retired.

Mr. Alden had watched for five nights when he knew the pressman to be at home.  On four of them Sheard’s light had been extinguished before midnight.  To-night, the fifth, it had remained burning, and long vigilance had been rewarded.

A car had drawn up at some distance from the house, and its occupant had proceeded forward on foot.  He had been admitted so rapidly that Alden had been unable to ascertain by whom.  The car, too, had been driven off immediately.  He had had no chance of taking the number; but was astute enough to know that in any event it would have availed him little, since, if the car were Bablon’s the number would almost certainly be a false one.

For once in a way, Mr. Alden became excited.  Whom could so late a visitor be, save one who wished to keep secret his visit?  In attaching his eavesdropper he had clumsily raised his head above the level of the window-ledge, but he had hoped that this gross error of strategy had passed unnoticed.  For a time he had failed to pick up the conversation until his ear became attuned to the subdued tone in which it was conducted.  Thus, he had lost the key to its purport and had had to improvise one.

But, even so, words had passed which had amply confirmed his suspicions; so much so that, whilst he listened, all but breathlessly, he was devising a scheme for capturing Sheard’s visitor, single-handed, as he left the house.  Furthermore, he was devising a way out of the difficulty in the event of the captive proving to be another than Severac Bablon.

The latter part of the duologue had puzzled him badly.  The visitor seemed to have ceased talking altogether, and Sheard’s remarks had in some inexplicable way drifted into quite a different channel.  They appeared to appertain to what had preceded them but remotely.  The relation seemed forced.

Still the visitor said nothing.  Sheard continued to talk, and in upon the mind of the detective shone a light of inspiration.

He detached the cunning little instrument, crawled across the lawn and slunk out at the gate.  Then he ran around to the rear of the house.  A narrow lane there was, and into its black mouth he plunged without hesitation.

The gate of the tradesmen’s entrance was unbolted.

Alden was perfectly familiar with the nightly customs of the Sheard establishment, and knew this to be irregular.  He tilted his hat back and scratched his head reflectively.

Then, from somewhere down the road, on the other side of the house, came the sound of a curious whistle, an eerie minor whistle.

Like an Indian, Alden set off running.  He rounded the corner as a car whirled into view five hundred yards further along, and from the next turning on the right.  It stopped.  One of its doors slammed.

It was off again.  It had vanished.

Mr. Alden carefully extracted a cheroot from his case and lighted it with loving care.