Read CHAPTER XX - CLOSED DOORS of The Sins of Severac Bablon , free online book, by Sax Rohmer, on ReadCentral.com.

“Why can’t they open the doors?  I can see there are people inside!”

A muffled roar, like that of a nearing storm at sea, drowned the querulous voice.

“Move along here, please!  Move on!  Move on!”

The monotonous orders of the police rose above the loud drone of the angry crowd.

Motor-buses made perilous navigation through the narrow street.  The hooting of horns on taxi-cabs played a brisk accompaniment to the mournful chant.  Almost from the Courts to the trebly guarded entrance of the Chancery Legal Incorporated Credit Society Bank stretched that deep rank of victims.  For, at the corner of Chancery Lane, the contents-bill of a daily paper thus displayed, in suitable order of precedence, the vital topics of the moment: 

     MISS PAULETTE DELOTUS NOT MARRIED

     Australians’ Plucky Fight

     IS SEVERAC BABLON IN VIENNA?

     BIG CITY BANK SMASH

     SLUMP IN NICARAGUAN RAILS

To some, those closed doors meant the sacrifice of jewellery, of some part of the luxury of life; to others, they meant-the drop-curtain that blacked out the future, the end of the act, the end of the play.

“Move along here, please!  Move on!  Move on!”

“All right, constable,” said Sir Richard Haredale, smiling unmirthfully; “I’ll move on-and move out!”

He extricated himself from the swaying, groaning, cursing multitude, and stepped across to the opposite side of the street.  Lost in unpleasant meditation, he stood, a spruce, military figure, bearing upon his exterior nothing indicative of the ruined man.  He was quite unaware of the approach of a graceful, fair girl, whose fresh English beauty already had enslaved the imaginations of some fifty lawyers’ clerks returning from lunch.  As ignorant of her train of conquests as Haredale was ignorant of her presence, she came up to him-and tears gleamed upon her lashes.  She stood beside him, and he did not see her.

“Dick!”

The voice aroused him, and a flush came upon his tanned, healthy-looking face.  A beam of gladness and admiration lost itself in a cloud, as mechanically he raised his hat, and, holding the girl’s hand, glanced uneasily aside, fearing to meet the anxious tenderness in the blue eyes which, now, were deepened to something nearer violet.

“It is true, then?” she asked softly.

He nodded, his lips grimly compressed.

“Who told you,” he questioned in turn, “that I had my poor scrapings in it?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said wearily.  “And it doesn’t matter much, does it?”

“Come away somewhere,” Haredale suggested.  “We can’t stand here.”

In silence they walked away from the clamouring crowd of depositors.

“Move along here, please!  Move on!  Move on!”

“Where can we go?” asked the girl.

“Anywhere,” said Haredale, “where we can sit down.  This will do.”

They turned into a cheap cafe, and, finding a secluded table, took their seats there, Haredale drearily ordering tea, without asking his companion whether she wanted it or not.  It was improbable that Lady Mary Evershed had patronised such a tea-shop before, but the novelty of the thing did not interest her in the least.  It was only her pride, the priceless legacy of British womanhood, which enabled her to preserve her composure-which checked the hot tears that burned in her eyes.  For the mute misery in Haredale’s face was more than he could hide.  With all his sang-froid, and all his training to back it, he was hard put to it to keep up even an appearance of unconcern.

Presently she managed to speak again, biting her lips between every few words.

“Had you-everything-there, Dick?”

He nodded.

“I was a fool, of course,” he said.  “I never did have the faintest idea of business.  There are dozens of sound investments-but what’s the good of whining?  I have acted as unofficial secretary to Mr. Julius Rohscheimer for two years, and eaten my pride at every meal.  But-I cannot begin all over again, Mary.  I shall have to let him break me-and clear out.”

He dropped his clenched fists upon his knees, and under the little table a hand crept to his.  He grasped it hard and released it.

Mary, with a strained look in her eyes, was drumming gloved fingers on the table.

“I detest Julius Rohscheimer!” she flashed.  “He is a perfect octopus.  Even father fears him-I don’t know why.”

Haredale smiled grimly.

“But there is someone who could prevent him from ruining your life, Dick,” she continued, glancing down at the table.

She did not look up for a few moments.  Then, as Haredale kept silent, she was forced to do so.  His grey eyes were fixed upon her face.

“Severac Bablon?  What do you know of him, Mary?”

She grew suddenly pale.

“I only know”-hesitating-“that is, I think, he is a man who, however misguided, has a love of justice.”

Haredale watched her.

“He is an up-to-date Claude Duval,” he said harshly.  “It hurts me, rather, Mary, to hear you approve of him.  Why do you do so?  I have noticed something of this before.  Do you forget that this man, for all the romance and mystery that surround him, still is no more than a common thief-a criminal?”

Mary’s lips tightened.

“He is not,” she said, meeting his eyes bravely.  “That is a very narrow view, Dick-”

Then, seeing the pain in the grey eyes, and remembering that this man with whom she disputed had just lost his hopes in life-his hopes of her-she reached out impulsively and grasped his arm.

“Oh, Dick!” she said; “forgive me!  But I am so utterly miserable, dear, that any poor little straw seems worth grasping at.”

So we must leave them; it was a situation full of poor human pathos.  The emotions surging within these two hearts would have afforded an interesting study for the magical pen of Charles Dickens.

But we cannot pause to essay it; the tide of our narrative bears us elsewhere.

Mr. J. J. Oppner, the pride of Wall Street, when, his fascinating daughter, Zoe, beside him, he rose to address his guests at the Hotel Astoria that evening, would have provided a study equally interesting to Charles Dickens or to the late Professor Darwin.  It would have puzzled even the distinguished biologist to reconcile the two species, represented by Mr. Oppner and Zoe, with any common origin.  The millionaire’s seamed and yellow face looked like nothing so much as a magnified section of a walnut.  Whilst the girl, with her cloud of copper-dusted brown hair trapped within an Oriental head-dress, her piquant beauty enhanced, if that were possible, by the softly shaded lights, and the bewitching curves revealed by her evening gown borrowing a more subtle witchery from their sombre environment of black-coated plutocrats, justified the most inspired panegyric that ever had poured from the fountain-pen of a New York reporter.  Mr. Oppner said: 

“Gentlemen,-We have met this evening for a special purpose.  With everyone’s permission, we will adjourn to another room and see how we can fix things up for Mr. Severac Bablon.”

He led the way without loss of time, his small, dried figure lost between that of John Macready ("the King of Coolgardie"), a stalwart, iron-grey Irishman, and the unshapely bulk of Baron Hague, once more perilously adventured upon English soil.

Sir Leopold Jesson, trim, perfectly groomed, his high, bald cranium gleaming like the dome of Solomon’s temple, followed, deep in conversation with a red, raw-boned Scotsman, whose features seemed badly out of drawing, and whose eyebrows suggested shrimps.  This was Hector Murray, the millionaire who had built and endowed more public baths and institutions than any man since the Emperor Vespasian.  Last of all, went Julius Rohscheimer, that gross figurehead of British finance, saying, with a satirish smile, to Haredale, who had made an eighth at dinner: 

“You won’t mind amusing Miss Oppner, Haredale, till we’re through with this little job?  It’s out of your line; you’ll be more at home here, I’m sure.”

The room chosen for this important conference was a small one, having but a single door, which opened on a tiny antechamber; this, in turn, gave upon the corridor.  When the six millionaires had entered, and Mr. Oppner had satisfied himself that suitable refreshments were placed in readiness, he returned to the corridor.  Immediately outside the door stood Mr. Aloys.  X. Alden.

You'll sit right there‚ instructed Oppner.  The man's bringing a chair and smokes and liquor‚ and you'll let nobody in-nobody.  We can’t be heard out here‚ with the anteroom between and both doors shut; there’s only one window‚ and this is the sixth storey.  So I guess our Bablon palaver will be private‚ some.”

Alden nodded, bit off the end of a cheroot, and settled himself against the wall.  Mr. Oppner returned to his guests.  In another room Zoe and Sir Richard Haredale struggled with a conversation upon sundry matters wherein neither was interested in the least.  Suddenly Zoe said, in her impulsive, earnest way: 

“Sir Richard, I know you won’t be angry, but Mary is my very dearest friend; we were at school together, too; and-she told me all about it this afternoon.  I understand what this loss means to you, and that it’s quite impossible for you to remain with Mr. Rohscheimer any longer; that you mean to resign your commission and go abroad.  It isn’t necessary for me to say I am sorry.”

He thanked her mutely, but it was with a certain expectancy that he awaited her next words.  Rumour had linked Zoe Oppner’s name with that of Severac Bablon, extravagantly, as it seemed to Haredale; but everything connected with that extraordinary man was extravagant.  He recalled how Mary, on more than one occasion, had exhibited traces of embarrassment when the topic was mooted, and how she had hinted that Severac Bablon might be induced to interest himself in his, Haredale’s, financial loss.  Could it be that Mary-perhaps through her notoriously eccentric American friend-had met the elusive wonder-worker?  Haredale, be it remembered, was hard hit, and completely down.  This insane suspicion had found no harbourage in his mind at any other time; but now, he hugged it dejectedly, watching Zoe Oppner’s pretty, expressive face for confirmatory evidence.

“Of course, the bank has failed for more than three millions,” said the girl earnestly; “but, in your own case, can nothing be done?”

Haredale lighted a cigarette, slightly shaking his head.

“I shall have to clear out.  That’s all”

“Oh!-but-it’s real hard to say what I want to say.  But-my father has business relations with Mr. Rohscheimer.  May I try to do something?”

Haredale’s true, generous instincts got the upper hand at that.  He told himself that he was behaving, mentally, like a cad.

“Miss Oppner,” he said warmly, “you are all that Mary has assured me.  You are a real chum.  I can say no more.  But it is quite impossible, believe me.”

There was such finality in the words that she was silenced.  Haredale abruptly changed the subject.

An hour passed.

Two hours passed.

Zoe began to grow concerned on her father’s behalf.  He was in poor health, and his physician’s orders were imperative upon the point of avoiding business.

Half-way through the third hour she made up her mind.

“He has wasted his time long enough,” she pronounced firmly-and the expression struck Haredale as oddly chosen.  “I am going to inform him that his ‘conference’ is closed.”

She passed out into the corridor to where Mr. Alden, his chair tilted at a comfortable angle, and his brogue-shod feet upon a coffee-table which bore also a decanter, a siphon, and a box of cigars, contentedly was pursuing his instructions.  He stood up as she appeared.

“Mr. Alden,” she said, “I wish to speak to Mr. Oppner.”

The detective spread his hands significantly.

“I respect your scruples, Mr. Alden,” Zoe continued, “but my father’s orders did not apply to me.  Will you please go in and request him to see me for a moment?”

Perceiving no alternative, Alden opened the door, crossed the little anteroom, and knocked softly at the inner door.

He received no reply to his knocking, and knocked again.  He knocked a third, a fourth time.  With a puzzled glance at Miss Oppner he opened the door and entered.

An unemotional man, he usually was guilty of nothing demonstrative.  But the appearance of the room wrenched a hoarse exclamation from his stoic lips.

In the first place, it was in darkness; in the second, when, with the aid of the electric lantern which he was never without, he had dispersed this darkness-he saw that it was empty!

The scene of confusion that ensued upon this incredible discovery defies description.

All the telephones in the Astoria could not accommodate the frantic people who sought them.  Messenger boys in troops appeared.  Hundreds of guests ran upstairs and hundreds of guests ran downstairs.  Every groaning lift, ere long, was bearing its freight of police and pressmen to the scene of the most astounding mystery that ever had set London agape.

Soon it was ascertained that the current had been disconnected in some way from the room where the six magnates had met.  But how, otherwise than through the door, they had been spirited away from a sixth floor apartment, was a problem that no one appeared competent to tackle; that they had not made their exit via the door was sufficiently proven by the expression of stark perplexity which dwelt upon the face of Mr. Aloys.  X. Alden.

Whilst others came and went, scribbling hasty notes in dog-eared notebooks, he, a human statue of Amaze, gazed at the open window, continuously and vacantly.  Jostled by the crowds of curious and interested visitors, he stood, the most surprised man in the two hemispheres.

Short of an airship, he could conceive no device whereby the missing six could have made their silent departure.  He was shaken out of his stupor by Haredale.

“Pull yourself together, Mr. Alden,” cried the latter.  “Can’t we do something?  Here’s half Scotland Yard in the place and nobody with an intelligent proposal to offer.”

Mr. Alden shook himself, like a heavy sleeper awakened.

“Where’s Miss Oppner?” he jerked.

Haredale started.

“I don’t know,” was his reply; “but I can go and see.”

He forced his way past the knot of people at the door, ignoring Inspector Sheffield, who sought to detain him.  Rapidly he ran through the rooms composing the suite.  In one he met Zoe’s maid, wringing her hands with extravagant emotion.

“Where is your mistress?”

“She has gone out, m’sieur.  I cannot tell where.  I do not know.”

Haredale’s heart gave a leap-and seemed to pause.

He ran to the stairs, not waiting for the overworked lift, and down into the hall.

“Has Miss Oppner gone out?” he demanded of the porter.

“Two minutes ago, sir.”

“In her car?”

“No, sir.  It was not ready.  In a cab.”

“Did you hear her directions?”

“No, sir.  But the boy will know.”

The boy was found.

“Where was Miss Oppner going, boy?” rapped Haredale.

“Eccleston Square, sir,” was the prompt reply.

The Marquess of Evershed’s.  Then his suspicions had not been unfounded.  He saw, in a flash of inspiration, the truth.  Zoe Oppner had seen in this disappearance the hand of Severac Bablon-if, indeed, if she did not know it for his work.  She was anxious about her father.  She wished to appeal to Severac Bablon upon his behalf.  And she had gone-not direct to the man-but to Eccleston Square.  Why?  Clearly because it was Lady Mary, and not herself, who had influence with him.

Hatless, Haredale ran out into the courtyard.  Rohscheimer’s car was waiting, and he leapt in, his grey eyes feverish.  “Lord Evershed’s,” he called to the man; “Eccleston Square.”