Read CHAPTER XXI - A CORNER IN MILLIONAIRES of The Sins of Severac Bablon , free online book, by Sax Rohmer, on ReadCentral.com.

At the moment that Julius Rohscheimer’s car turned into the Square, a girl, enveloped in a dark opera wrap, but whose fair hair gleamed as she passed the open door, came alone, out of Lord Evershed’s house, and entering a waiting taxi-cab, was driven away.

“Stop!” ordered Haredale hoarsely through the tube.

The big car pulled up as the cab passed around on the other side.

“Follow that cab.”

With which the pursuit commenced.  And Haredale found himself trembling, so violent was the war of emotions that waged within him.  His deductions were proving painfully correct.  Through Mayfair and St. John’s Wood the cab led the way; finally into Finchley Road.  Fifty yards behind, Haredale stopped the car as the cab drew up before a gate set in a high wall.

Lady Mary stepped out, opened the gate, and disappeared within.  Heedless of the taxi-driver’s curious stare, Haredale, a conspicuous figure in evening dress, with no overcoat and no hat, entered almost immediately afterwards.

Striding up to the porch, he was searching for bell or knocker when the door opened silently, and an Arab in spotless white robes saluted him with dignified courtesy.

“Take my card to your master,” snapped Haredale, striving to exhibit no surprise, and stepped inside rapidly.

The Arab waved him to a small reception room, furnished with a wealth of curios for which the visitor had no eyes, and retired.  As the man withdrew Haredale moved to the door and listened.  He admitted to himself that this was the part of a common spy; but his consuming jealousy would brook no restraint.

From somewhere farther along the hall he heard, though indistinctly, a familiar voice.

Without stopping to reflect he made for a draped door, knocked peremptorily, and entered.

He found himself in a small apartment, whose form and appointments, even to his perturbed mind, conveyed a vague surprise.  It was, to all intents and purposes, a cell, with stone-paved floor and plaster walls.  An antique lamp, wherein rested what appeared to be a small ball of light, unlike any illuminant he had seen, stood upon a massive table, which was littered with papers.  Excepting a chair of peculiar design and a magnificently worked Oriental curtain which veiled either a second door or a recess in the wall, the place otherwise was unfurnished.

Before this curtain, and facing him, pale but composed, stood Lady Mary Evershed, a sweet picture in a bizarre setting.

“Has your friend run away, then?” said Haredale roughly.

The girl did not reply, but looked fully at him with something of scorn and much of reproach in her eyes.

“I know whose house this is,” continued Haredale violently, “and why you have come.  What is he to you?  Why do you know him-visit him-shield him?  Oh! my God! it only wanted this to complete my misery.  I have, now, not one single happy memory to take away with me.”

His voice shook upon those last words.

“Mary,” he said sadly, and all his rage was turned to pleading-“what does it mean?  Tell me.  I know there is some simple explanation -

“You shall hear it, Sir Richard,” interrupted a softly musical voice.

He turned as though an adder had bitten him; the blase composure which is the pride of every British officer had melted in the rays of those blue eyes that for years had been the stars of his worship.  It was a very human young man, badly shaken and badly conscious of his display of weakness, who faced the tall figure in the tightly buttoned frock-coat that now stood in the open doorway.

The man who had interrupted him was one to arrest attention anywhere and in any company.  With figure and face cast in a severely classic mould, his intense, concentrated gaze conveyed to Haredale a throbbing sense of force, in an uncanny degree.

“Severac Bablon!” flashed through his mind.

“Himself, Sir Richard.”

Haredale, who had not spoken, met the weird, fixed look, but with a consciousness of physical loss-an indefinable sensation, probably mental, of being drawn out of himself.  No words came to help him.

“You have acted to-night,” continued Severac Bablon, and Haredale, knowing himself in the presence of the most notorious criminal in Europe, yet listened passively, as a schoolboy to the admonition of his Head, “you have acted to-night unworthily.  I had noted you, Sir Richard, as a man whose friendship I had hoped to gain.  Knowing your trials, and”-glancing at the girl’s pale face-“with what object you suffered them, I had respected you, whilst desiring an opportunity to point out to you the falsity of your position.  I had thought that a man who could win such a prize as has fallen to your lot must, essentially, be above all that was petty-all that was mean.”

Haredale clenched his hands angrily.  Never since his Eton days had such words been addressed to him.  He glared at the over-presumptuous mountebank-for so he appraised him; he told himself that, save for a woman’s presence, he would have knocked him down.  He met the calm but imperious gaze-and did nothing, said nothing.

“A woman may be judged,” continued the fascinating voice, “not by her capacity for love, but by her capacity for that rarer thing, friendship.  A woman who, at her great personal peril, can befriend another woman is a pearl beyond price.  Knowing me, you have ceased to fear me as a rival, Sir Richard.” (To his mental amazement something that was not of his mind, it seemed, told Haredale that this was so.) “It remains only for you to hear that simple explanation.  Here it is.”

He handed a note to him.  It was as follows: 

“You have confided to me the secret of your residence, where I might see or communicate with you, and I was coming to see you to-night, but I have met with a slight accident-enough to prevent me.  Lady Mary has volunteered to go alone.  I will not betray your confidence, but our friendly acquaintance cannot continue unless you instantly release my father-for I know that you have done this outrageous thing.  He is ill and it is very, very cruel.  I beg of you to let him return at once.  If you admire true friendship and unselfishness, as you profess, do this to repay Mary Evershed, who risks irretrievably compromising herself to take this note-

     “ZOE OPPNER.”

“Miss Oppner, descending the stairs at Lord Evershed’s in too great haste,” explained Severac Bablon, and a new note, faint but perceptible, had crept into his voice, “had the misfortune to sustain a slight accident-I am happy to know, no more than slight.  Lady Mary brought me her message.  I commit no breach of trust in showing it to you.  There is a telephone in the room at Lord Evershed’s in which Miss Oppner remains at present, and, as you entered, I obtained her spoken consent to do what I have done.”

“Mary,” Haredale burst out, “I know it is taking a mean advantage to plead that if I had not been so unutterably wretched and depressed I never could have doubted, but-will you forgive me?”

Whatever its ethical merits or demerits, it was the right, the one appeal.  And it served.

Severac Bablon watched the reconciliation with a smile upon his handsome face.  Though clearly but a young man, he could at will invest himself with the aloof but benevolent dignity of a father-confessor.

“The cloud has passed,” he said.  “I have a word for you, Sir Richard.  You have learnt to-night some of my secrets-my appearance, my residence, and the identities of two of my friends.  I do not regret this, although I am a ‘wanted man.’  Only to-night I have committed a gross outrage which, with the circulation of to-morrow’s papers, will cry out for redress to the civilised world.  You are at liberty to act as you see fit.  I would wish, as a favour, that you grant me thirty-six hours’ grace-as Miss Oppner already has done.  On my word-if you care to accept it-I shall not run away.  At the end of that time I will again offer you the choice of detaining me or of condoning what I have done and shall do.  Which is it to be?”

Haredale did not feel sure of himself.  In fact, the episodes of that night seemed, now, like happenings in a dream-a dream from which he yet was not fully awakened.  He glanced from Mary to the incomprehensible man who was so completely different from anything he had pictured, from anything he ever had known.  He looked about the bare, cell-like apartment, illuminated by the soft light of the globe upon the massive table.  He thought of the Arab who had admitted him-of the entire absence of subterfuge where subterfuge was to be expected.

“I will wait,” he said.

But in less than thirty-six hours the world had news of Severac Bablon.

At a time roughly corresponding with that when Mr. Aloys.  X. Alden was standing, temporarily petrified with astonishment, in a certain room of the Hotel Astoria, two gentlemen in evening attire burst into a Wandsworth police station.  One was a very angry Irishman, the other a profane Scot, whose language, which struck respectful awe to the hearts of two constables, a sergeant, and an inspector-would have done credit to the most eloquent mate in the mercantile marine.

He fired off a volley of redundant but gorgeously florid adjectives, what time he peeled factitious whiskers from his face and shook their stickiness from his fingers.  His Irish friend, with brilliant but less elaborate comments, struggled to depilate a Kaiser-like moustache from his upper lip.

“What are ye sittin’ still for-r?” shouted the Scotsman, and banged a card on the desk.  “I’m Hector Murray, and this is John Macready of Melbourne.  We’ve been held up by the highwaym’n Bablon.  Turrn out the forrce.  Turrn out the dom’d diveesion.  Get a move on ye, mon!”

The accumulated power of the three names-Hector Murray, John Macready, and Severac Bablon-galvanised the station into sudden activity, and an extraordinary story, a fabulous story, was gleaned from the excited gentlemen.  It appeared in every paper on the following morning, so it cannot better be presented here than in the comparatively simple form wherein it met the eyes of readers of the Gleaner’s next issue.  Cuts have been made where the reporter’s account overlaps the preceding, or where he has become purely rhetorical.

     SIX FAMOUS CAPITALISTS KIDNAPPED

     SEVERAC BABLON ACTIVE AGAIN

     AMAZING OUTRAGE AT THE ASTORIA

Under these heads appeared a full and finely descriptive account of the happenings already noticed.

     DRAMATIC ESCAPE OF MR. MACREADY AND MR. HECTOR MURRAY

     SPECIAL INTERVIEW WITH MR. MURRAY

     WHERE ARE THE MISSING MAGNATES?

     IS SCOTLAND YARD EFFETE?

From Mr. Hector Murray ... our special representative obtained a full account of the outrage, which threw much light upon a mystery that otherwise appeared insoluble.  After ... they entered the room at the Astoria, where they had agreed to discuss a plan of mutual action against the common enemy of Capital, Mr. Murray informed our representative that nothing unusual took place for some twenty minutes or half an hour.  Baron Hague had just risen to make a proposal, when the lights were extinguished.

As it was a very black night, the room was plunged into complete darkness.  Before anyone had time to ascertain the meaning of the occurrence, a voice, which our representative was informed seemed to proceed from the floor, uttered the following words: 

“Let no one speak or move.  Mr. Macready place your revolver upon the table.” (Mr. Macready was the only member of the company who was armed, and, curiously enough, as the voice commenced he had drawn his revolver.) “Otherwise, your son’s yacht, the Savannah, will be posted missing.  Hear me out, every one of you, lest great misfortune befall those dear to you.  Mr. Murray, your sister and niece will disappear from the Villa Marina, Monte Carlo, within four hours of any movement made by you without my express permission.  Mr. Oppner, you have a daughter.  Believe me, she and you are quite safe-at present.  Baron Hague, Sir Leopold Jesson, and Mr. Rohscheimer, my agents have orders, which only I can recall to bring you to Carey Street.  I threaten no more than I can carry out.  Give the alarm if it please you ... but I have warned.”

During this most extraordinary speech shadowy shapes seemed to be flitting about the room.  The nature of the threats uttered had, for the time, quite unmanned the six gentlemen, which is no matter for surprise.  Then, at a muttered command in what Mr. Murray informed our representative to have been Arabic, four lamps-or, rather, balls of fire-appeared at the four corners of the apartment.  This bizarre scene, suggestive of nothing so much as an Eastern romance, was due to the presence of several Arabs in heavy robes, who had in some way entered in the darkness, and who now stood around the walls, four of their number holding in their brown hands these peculiar globular lights, which were of a kind quite new to those present. (An article by Mr. Pearce Baldry, of Messrs. Armiston, Baldry & Co., dealing with the possible construction of these lamps, appears on page 6.)

Immediately inside the open window stood a tall man in a closely buttoned frock-coat.  He carried no arms, but wore a black silk half-mask.  Mr. Rohscheimer at this juncture rendered the episode even more dramatic by exclaiming: 

     “Good heavens!  It’s Severac Bablon!”

“It is, indeed, Mr. Rohscheimer,” said that menace to civilised society; “so that no doubt you will respect my orders.  Mr. Macready, I do not see your revolver upon the table.  I have warned you twice.”

     Mr. Macready, who is not easily intimidated, evidently concluding
     that no good could come of resistance at that time, threw the
     revolver on to the table and folded his arms.

“I give you my word,” concluded Severac Bablon, “that no bodily harm shall come to any one of you so long as you attempt no resistance.  What will now be done is done only by way of precaution.  Any sound would be fatal.”

At a signal to the Arabs the four lights were hidden, and each of the six gentlemen were seized in the darkness in such a manner that resistance was impossible.  Each had a hand clapped over his mouth, whilst he was securely gagged and bound by men who evidently had the arts of the Thug at their fingers’ ends.  Mr. Murray informed our representative that so certain were they of Severac Bablon’s power to perform all that he had threatened that, in his opinion, no one struggled, with the exception of Mr. Macready, who, however, was promptly overpowered.

It was then that they learnt how the Arabs and their master had entered.  For each of the distinguished company, commencing with Baron Hague, was lowered by a rope to a window on the fifth floor and drawn in by men who waited there.

There is no doubt that access had been gained by means of a short ladder from this lower window; indeed, Mr. Murray saw such a ladder in use when, all having descended through the darkness, the last to leave-an Arab-returned by that means.  Such was the dispatch and perfect efficiency of this audacious man’s Eastern gang, that Mr. Murray and his friends were all removed from the upper apartment to the lower in less than seven minutes.  It will be remembered that the south wing of the Astoria has lately been faced with dark grey granite, that it was a moonless night, and that the daring operation could only have been visible, if visible at all, from the distant Embankment.  No hitch occurred whatever; Severac Bablon’s Arabs exhibited all the agility and quickness of monkeys.  It is illustrative of his brazen methods that he then removed the gags, and invited his victims to partake of some refreshments, “as they had a long drive before them.”

     Needless to say, they were all severely shaken by their perilous
     adventure; and this led to an angry outburst from Mr. Macready, who
     demanded a full explanation of the outrage.

“Sir,” was the reply, “it is not for you to ask.  As a final warning to you and to your friends-for the provisions I have made in your case are no more complete than those which I have made in the others-permit me to tell you that eight of the twelve men manning your son’s boat including two officers-are under my orders.  If any obstacle be placed in my way by you a wireless message will carry instructions, though I myself lie in detention, or dead, that the Savannah be laid upon a certain course.  That course, Mr. Macready, will not bring her into any port known to the Board of Trade.  Shall I nominate the crew?  Or are your doubts dispersed?”

The insight thus afforded them to the far-reaching influence, the all-pervading power, of this arch-brigand whose presence in our midst is a disgrace to the police of the world, was sufficient to determine them upon a passive attitude.  A gentleman who seemed very nervous then appeared, and skilfully disguised all six.  Mr. Rohscheimer mentioned later to Mr. Murray that in this man he had recognised, beyond any shadow of doubt, a perruquier whose name is a household word.  But this doubtless was but another clever trick of the master trickster.

In three parties of two, each accompanied by an Arab dressed in European clothes, but wearing a tarboosh, they left the hotel.  Disguised beyond recognition, they were conducted to a roomy car of the “family” pattern, which was in waiting; the blinds were drawn down, and they were driven away.

At the end of a rapid drive of about an hour’s duration, Messrs. Murray and Macready were requested by one of the three accompanying Arabs to alight, and were informed that Severac Bablon desired to tender his sincere apologies for the inconvenience to which, unavoidably, he had put them, and for the evils with which-though only in the “most sacred interests”-he had been compelled to threaten them.  They were absolved from all obligations and at liberty now to take what steps they thought fit.  With which they were set down in a lonely spot, and the car was driven away.  As our readers are already well aware, this lonely spot was upon Wandsworth Common.

It is almost impossible to credit the fact that six influential men of world-wide reputation could thus, publicly, be kidnapped from a London hotel.  But in this connection two things must be remembered.  Firstly, for reasons readily to be understood and appreciated, they offered no resistance; secondly, the presence of so many Orientals in the hotel occasioned no surprise.  A Prince Said Abu-el-Ahzab had been residing for some time in the apartments below those occupied by Mr. J. J. Oppner, and the members of his numerous suite are familiar to all residents.  He and his following have disappeared, but a cash payment of all outstanding accounts has been left behind.  It has been discovered that the light was cut off from one of the rooms occupied by the ci-devant prince, and the police are at work upon several other important clues which point beyond doubt to the fact that “Prince Said Abu-el-Ahzab” was none other than Severac Bablon.

During the next twenty-four hours the entire habitable world touched by cable service literally gasped at this latest stroke of the notorious Severac Bablon.  Despite the frantic and unflagging labours of every man that Scotland Yard could spare to the case nothing was accomplished.  The wife or nearest kin of each of the missing men had received a typed card: 

     “Fear nothing.  No harm shall befall a guest of Severac Bablon.”

These cards, which could be traced to no maker or stationer, all had been posted at Charing Cross.

Then, in the stop press of the Gleaner’s final edition, appeared the following: 

     “Baron Hague, Sir L. Jesson, Messrs. Rohscheimer and Oppner have
     returned to their homes.”

It is improbable that in the history of the newspaper business, even during war-time, there has ever been such a rush made for the papers as that which worked the trade to the point of general exhaustion on the following morning.

Without pausing here to consider the morning’s news, let us return to the Chancery Legal Incorporated Credit Society Bank.

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

Again the street is packed with emotional humanity.  But what a different scene is this, although in its essentials so similar.  For every face is flushed with excitement-joyful excitement.  As once before, they press eagerly on toward the bank entrance; but this morning the doors are open.  Almost every member of that crushed and crushing assembly holds a copy of the morning paper.  Every man and every woman in the crowd knows that the missing financiers have declined, firmly, to afford any information whatever respecting their strange adventure-that they have refused, all four of them, point blank either to substantiate or to deny the sensational story of Messrs. Macready and Murray.  “The incident is closed,” Baron Hague is reported as declaring.  But what care the depositors of the Chancery Legal Incorporated?  For is it not announced, also, that this quartet of public benefactors, with a fifth philanthropist (who modestly remains anonymous) have put up between them no less a sum than three and a half million pounds to salve the wrecked bank?

“By your leave.  Make way here.  Stand back, if you please.”

Someone starts a cheer, and it is feverishly taken up by the highly wrought throng, as an escorted van pulls slowly through the crowd.  It is bullion from the Bank of England.  Good red gold and crisp notes.  It is dead hopes raised from the dust; happiness reborn, like a ph[oe]nix from the ashes of misery.

“Hip, hip, hip, hooray!”

Again and again, and yet again that joyous cheer awakes the echoes of the ancient Inns.

It was as a final cheer died away that Haredale, on the rim of the throng, felt himself tapped upon the shoulder.

He turned a flushed face and saw a tall man, irreproachably attired, standing smiling at his elbow.  The large eyes, with their compelling light of command, held nothing now but a command to friendship.

“Severac Bablon!”

“Well, Haredale!” The musical voice made itself audible above all the din.  “These good people would rejoice to know the name of that anonymous friend who, with four other disinterested philanthropists, has sought to bring a little gladness into a grey world.  Here am I. And there, on the bank steps, are police.  Make your decision.  Either give me in charge or give me your hand.”

Haredale could not speak; but he took the outstretched hand of the most surprising bandit the world ever has known, and wrung it hard.