Read CHAPTER XVI - THE LAMP AND THE MASK of The Sins of Severac Bablon , free online book, by Sax Rohmer, on ReadCentral.com.

“10761,” said Alden.  “I wonder whose car that is.”

None of the watchful trio had any idea.  But whomever was within it, the second car performed exactly the same man[oe]uvres as the first, and, a few moments after its appearance, was lost to sight and hearing once more.

But a matter of seconds later, came the familiar thud-thud-thud; and a third car plunged up the hill and went swinging around the drive.  Again, no one of the three was able to recognise the number.  Out by the further gate of the drive it passed, turned, and flashed by them in the darkness, to go leaping down the slope.

“Three,” said Alden.  “I wonder if there’s any more.”

His tone was thoughtful.

“Say‚” began Mr. Oppner‚ “we’d better get on with it now‚ because

“I know,” Alden interrupted, “there may be only one more to come?  You’re thinking that, after all those expected have arrived, there’ll be trouble in getting the door to open?”

“I was thinking that, too,” said Martin.  “Maybe they’re all arrived as it is; but we stand a still worse chance if we wait.”

“Come on,” said Mr. Oppner, with a rising excitement evident in his voice.  “We know there’s one big fish in the net, anyway!”

Thud-thud-thud!

“There’s another car coming,” cried Alden.  “Hurry up, Mr. Oppner!  This way.  Mind your head through this broken part.  We’ll be on the steps as the car comes around the drive!”

They crept through the gap below and ran across the road, Oppner as actively as either of his companions.  Already, the white beam of the headlight was cutting-the gloom, below, where the road was heavily bordered with trees.

“Just in time!”

Past the gate they ran, and pattered on to the drive.  Behind them, a big car was just spinning past the gate.  As it came leaping along the drive Alden ran up the four stone steps to the door and jammed his thumb hard against the bell button.

At the same moment, Martin whistled shrilly, three times.

Whereupon affairs began to move in meteoric fashion.

Several people came bundling out of the car.  From the gloom all about it there sounded the scamper of hurrying feet.

The door was thrown open, and a blaze of light swept the steps.

Alden leapt over the threshold, pistol in hand, yelling at the same time: 

“Follow me, boys!”

Like the swoop of heated play to a goal burst a human wave upon the steps.  Oppner and Martin were swept irresistibly upward and inward.  They were surrounded, penned in.  Then: 

“Break away, you goldarned idiot!” rose Alden’s angry voice ahead.

The lights went out.  The door slammed.

“Alden!” cried Mr. Oppner.  “Alden!”

Someone pinioned him from behind.

“There’s a mistake, you blamed ass!” he screamed.  “I ain’t one of ’em!  Alden!  Martin!”

A hand was pressed firmly over his mouth, and with veins swelling up and eyes starting from his head in impotent fury, Mr. Oppner was hustled forward through the darkness.

Around him a number of people seemed to be moving, and when he found his feet upon stairs, several unseen hands were outstretched to thrust him upward.  The darkness was impenetrable.

Apparently the stair was uncarpeted, as likewise was the corridor along which he presently found himself proceeding.  The echo of many footsteps rang through the house.  It sounded shell-like, empty.  Then it seemed to him that not so many were about him.  He felt his revolver slide from his hip-pocket.  He was pushed gently forward, and a door closed behind him.  The sound of footsteps died away with that of whispering voices.

Came a sudden angry roar, muffled, distant, he thought in the voice of Alden.  It was stifled, cut off ere it had come to full crescendo, in a very significant manner.  Silence, then, fell about him, the chill silence of an empty house.

Cautiously he turned and felt for the door, which he knew to be close behind him.  He was obsessed by a childish, though not unnatural, fear of falling through some trap.

He touched the door-knob, turned it.  As he had anticipated, the door was locked.  He wondered if there were any windows to this strangely dark apartment.  With his fingers touching the wall, he crept slowly forward, halting at every other step to listen; but the night gave up no sound.

The tenth pace brought him to a corner.  He turned off at right angles, still pursuing the wall, and came upon shutters, closely barred.  He pressed on, came to another corner; proceeded, another; and finally touched the door-knob again.

This was a square room, apparently, and unfurnished.  But what might not yawn for him in the middle of the floor?  He remembered that the river ran at the end of the garden.

Pressing his ear to the door, he listened intently.

Without, absolutely nothing stirred.  He drew a quick, sibilant breath, and turned, planting his back against the door and clenching his fists.

Suddenly it had been borne in upon his mind that something, someone, was in the room with him!

Vainly he sought to peer through the darkness.  His throat was parched.

A dim glow was born in the heart of the gloom.  Scarce able to draw breath, fearing what he might see, yet more greatly fearing to look away, even for an instant, Mr. Oppner stared and stared.  His eyes ached.

Brighter became the glow, and proclaimed itself a ball of light.  It illuminated the face that was but a few inches removed from it.  In the midst of that absolute darkness the effect was indescribably weird.  Nothing for some moments was visible but just that ball of light and the dark face with the piercing eyes gleaming out from slits in a silk mask.

Then the ball became fully illuminated, and Oppner saw that it was some unfamiliar kind of lamp, and that it rested in a sort of metal tripod upon a plain deal table, otherwise absolutely bare.

Save for this table, the lamp, and a chair, the room was entirely innocent of furniture.  Upon the chair, with his elbows resting on the table, sat a man in evening dress.  He was very dark, very well groomed, and seemingly very handsome; but the black silk half-mask effectually disguised him.  His eyes were arresting.  Mr. Oppner did not move, and he could not look away.

For he knew that he stood in the presence of Severac Bablon.

The latter pushed something across the table in Oppner’s direction.

“Your cheque-book,” he said, “and a fountain pen.”

Mr. Oppner gulped; did not stir, did not speak.  Severac Bablon’s voice was vaguely familiar to him.

“You are the second richest man in the United States,” he continued, “and the first in parsimony.  I shall mulct you in one hundred thousand pounds!”

“You’ll never get it!” rasped Oppner.

“No?  Well let us weigh the possibilities, one against the other.  There have been protests, from rival journals, against the Gleaner’s acceptance of foreign money for British national purposes.  This I had anticipated, but such donations have had the effect of stimulating the British public.  If the cheques already received, and your own, which you are about to draw, are not directly devoted to the purpose for which they are intended, I can guarantee that you shall not be humiliated by their return!”

“Ah!” sighed Oppner.

“The Gleaner newspaper has made all arrangements with an important English firm to construct several air vessels.  The materials and the workmanship will be British throughout, and the vessels will be placed at the disposal of the authorities.  The source of the Gleaner’s fund thus becomes immaterial.  But, in recognition of the subscribers, the vessels will be named ‘Oppner I.,’ ‘Oppner II.,’ ‘Hague I.,’ etc.”

“Yep?”

“At some future time we may understand one another better, Mr. Oppner.  For the present I shall make no overtures.  I have no desire unduly to mystify you, however.  The men whom Mr. Martin of Pinkerton’s, found surrounding this house were not the men from Sullivan’s Agency, but friends of my own.  Sullivans were informed at the last moment that the raid had been abandoned.  The car, again, which you observed, is my own.  I caused it to be driven to and fro between here and Richmond Bridge for your especial amusement, altering the number on each occasion.  Finally, any outcry you may care to raise will pass unnoticed, as The Cedars has been leased for the purpose of a private establishment for the care of mental cases.”

“You’re holding me to ransom?”

“In a sense.  But you would not remain here.  I should remove you to a safer place.  My car is waiting.”

“You can’t hold me for ever.”  Mr. Oppner was gathering courage.  This interview was so very businesslike, so dissimilar from the methods of American brigandage, that his keen, commercial instincts were coming to the surface.  “Any time I get out I can tell the truth and demand my money back.”

“It is so.  But on the day that you act in that manner, within an hour from the time, your New York mansion will be burned to a shell, without loss of life, but with destruction of property considerably exceeding in value the amount of your donation to the Gleaner fund.  I may add that I shall continue to force your expenditures in this way, Mr. Oppner, until such time as I bring you to see the falsity of your views.  On that day we shall become friends.”

“Ah!”

“You may wonder why I have gone to the trouble to make a captive of you, here, when by means of such a menace alone I might have achieved my object; I reply that you possess that stubborn type of disposition which only succumbs to force majeure.  Your letter to the Gleaner explaining your views respecting the Dominion, and proposing that an air-vessel be christened ‘The Canada,’ is here, typed; you have only to sign it.  The future, immediate, and distant is entirely in your own hands, Mr. Oppner.  You will remain my guest until I have your cheque and your signature to this letter.  You will always be open to sudden demands upon your capital, from me, so long as you continue, by your wrongful employment of the power of wealth, to blacken the Jewish name.  For it is because you are a Jew that I require these things of you.”