Read CHAPTER XXV - AN OFFICIAL CALL of The Sins of Severac Bablon , free online book, by Sax Rohmer, on ReadCentral.com.

The Home Secretary sat before the red-leathern expanse of his writing-table.  Papers of unique political importance were strewn carelessly about that diplomatic battlefield, for at this famous table the Right Honourable Walter Belford played political chess.  To the right honourable gentleman the game of politics was a pursuit only second in its fascinations to the culture of rare orchids.  It ranked in that fine, if eccentric, mind about equal with the accumulating of rare editions, early printed works, illuminated missals, palimpsests, and other MSS., or with the delights of the higher photography-a hobby to which Mr. Belford devoted much attention.

Visitors to a well-known Sussex coast resort will need no introduction to Womsley Old Place, the charming seat of that charming man, the Right Hon. Walter Belford.  With a frowning glance at a number of letters pinned neatly together, Mr. Belford leant back in his heavily padded chair, and, through his gold-rimmed pince-nez, allowed himself the momentary luxury of surveying the loaded shelves of the noted Circular Study wherein he now was seated.  The great writing-table, with its priceless bronze head of Cicero and its luxurious appointments; the morocco, parchment, the vellum backs of the rare works about; the busts above the belles-lettres, afforded him visible, if aesthetic enjoyment.  In a gap between two tall bookcases a Persian curtain partially concealed the glass doors of a huge conservatory.  Mr. Belford liked his orchids near him when at work and not, as lesser men, when at play.

Sighing gently, he took up the bundle of letters, laid it down again, and pressed a button.

“I will see Inspector Sheffield,” he said to the footman who came.

Almost immediately entered a big man, fresh complexioned and of modest bearing-a man, Mr. Belford determined after one shrewd glance, who, once he saw his duty clearly, would pursue it through fire and flood, but who frequently experienced some difficulty in this initial particular.

“Sit down, inspector,” said the politician genially, and with the appearance of wishing to hasten a distasteful business.  “You would like to see the three communications which I have received from this man Bablon?”

Sheffield, seated on the extreme edge of a big morocco-covered lounge-chair, nodded deferentially.  Mr. Belford took up the bundle of letters.

“This,” he said, passing one to the man from Scotland Yard, “is that which I received upon the 28th ultimo.”

Chief-Inspector Sheffield bent forward to the shaded light and ran his eyes over the following, written in a neat hand upon a plain correspondence card: 

“Severac Bablon begs to present his compliments to His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department and to request the honour of a private interview, which, he begs to assure the right honourable gentleman, would be mutually advantageous.  The words, ‘Safe conduct.-W.  B.,’ together with time and place proposed, in the agony column of The Times, he will accept as a sufficient guarantee of the right honourable gentleman’s intentions.”

“And this,” continued Mr. Belford, selecting a second, “reached me upon the 7th instant”: 

“Severac Bablon begs to present his compliments to His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department and to urge upon him the absolute necessity of an immediate interview.  He would respectfully assure the right honourable gentleman that high issues are at stake.”

“Finally,” continued the politician, as Sheffield laid the second card upon the table, “I received this upon the 13th instant-yesterday”: 

“Severac Bablon begs to present his compliments to His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department and to inform the right honourable gentleman that he having failed to appoint a time of meeting, Severac Bablon is forced by circumstances to make his own appointment, and will venture to present himself at Womsley Old Place on the evening of the 14th instant, between the hours of 8 and 9.”

Mr. Belford leant back in his chair, turning it slightly that he might face the detective.

“My information is,” he said, in his finely modulated voice, “that you are personally familiar with the appearance of this Severac Bablon”-Sheffield nodded-“but that no one else, or-ah-no one whom we may call upon-is in a position to identify him.  Now, apart from the fact that I have reason to fear his taking some improper measures to see me here, this singular case is rapidly assuming a political significance!” He made the impressive pause of the cultured elocutionist.  “Unofficially, I am advised that there is some wave of afflated opinion passing through the Semitic races of the Near East-if, indeed, it has not touched the Moslems.  The Secretary for Foreign Affairs anticipates-I speak as a member of the public-anticipates a letter from a certain quarter respecting the advisablity of seizing the person of this man without delay.  Had such a letter actually reached my friend, I had had no alternative but to place the matter in the hands of the Secret Service.”

Inspector Sheffield fidgeted.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said; “but the S.S. could do no more than we are doing.”

“That I grant you,” replied the Home Secretary, with his genial smile; “but, in the event referred to, no choice would remain to me.  Far from desiring the intervention of another agent, I should regret it, for-family reasons.”

“Ah!” said the inspector; “I was about to-to-approach that side of the matter, sir.”

Mr. Belford’s emotions were under perfect control, but at those words he regarded the detective with a new interest.

“You have my respectful attention,” he said.

“Well‚ sir‚”-Sheffield was palpably embarrassed-“there’s nothing to be gained by beating about the bush!  Excuse me‚ sir!  But I know‚ and you know‚ that Lady Mary Evershed-your niece‚ sir-and her American friend‚ Miss Zoe Oppner‚ are

“Yes, inspector?”

“Are acquainted with Severac Bablon!”

Mr. Belford scrutinised Sheffield closely.  There was more in the man than appeared at first sight.

“Is this regrettable fact so generally known?” he asked rather coldly.

“No, sir,” replied the other; “but if the case went on the Secret Service Fund it might be compromising!”

“Do I understand you to mean, inspector, that the discretion of our political agents is not to be relied upon?”

“No, sir.  But your-private information could hardly be withheld from them-as it has been withheld from us!”

Even the politician’s studied reserve was not proof against that thrust.  He started.  Chief-Inspector Sheffield, after all, was a man to be counted with.  A silence fell between them-to be broken by the Home Secretary.

“Your frankness pleases me, Inspector Sheffield.”

The other bowed awkwardly.

“I perceive that you would make a bargain.  I am to take you into my confidence, and you, in turn, hope to render any employment of the Fund unnecessary?”

“Whatever you tell me, sir, will go no farther-not to one other living.  Better confide in me than in a political agent.  Then, you can’t have anything more incriminating than this.”

He took a card from his pocket and placed it before Mr. Belford.

     “TO LADY MARY EVERSHED.

     “I shall always be indebted to you and to Miss Oppner, but I can
     assure you of Sir Richard’s safety.

     “SEVERAC BABLON.”

“No one has seen that but myself,” continued the detective.  “I know better!  But anything further you can let me have, sir, will help me to get them out of the tangle:  that’s what I’m aiming at!”

Mr. Belford’s expression had changed when the damning card was placed before him; but his decision was quickly come to.  He opened a drawer of the writing table.

“Here,” he said, passing a sheet of foolscap to the inspector, “is the plan of international co-operation which-I will return candour for candour-the increasing importance of the case renders expedient.  It was drawn up by my friend the Foreign Secretary.  It ensures secrecy, dispatch, and affords no loophole by which Bablon can escape us.”

His manner had grown brisk.  The dilettante was lost in the man of action.

Inspector Sheffield read carefully through the long document and returned it to Belford, frowning thoughtfully.

“Thank you, sir,” he said; “and what else?”

Mr. Belford smiled thoughtfully.

“You are aware that, owing to the family complications referred to, I have been employing Mr. Paul Harley, the private detective?”

Sheffield nodded.

“He has secured other letters, incriminating a Mr. Sheard, of the staff of the Gleaner; Sir Richard Haredale, of the - Guards; Miss Zoe Oppner; and ... well-you know the worst-my niece, again!” The inspector drew a long, deep breath.

“Next to Victor Lemage, who’s also an accomplice,” he said admiringly,
“I don’t mind admitting that Harley is the smartest man in the business. 
But in justice to us, sir, you must remember that our hands are tied.  A
C.I.D. man isn’t allowed to do what Harley can do.”

“I grant it, inspector.  Now, having given you my confidence, I rely upon you to work with me-not against me.”

“I am with you entirely, sir.  May I have those letters?”

Mr. Belford hesitated.

“It is surely inconsistent with your duty to keep them private?”

“What about the one in my pocket, sir?  That alone is sufficient, if I wanted to make a scandal.  No; I give you my word that no other eye shall see them.”

The Home Secretary shrugged his shoulders, and taking up the bundle from which already he had selected Severac Bablon’s three communications, he placed it in the detective’s hands.

“I rely upon you to keep certain names out of the affair.”

“I give you my word that they shall never be mentioned in connection with it.  You have taken the only course which could ensure that, sir.  May I see the photographs?”

If the Right Hon. Walter Belford had already revised his first estimate of Inspector Sheffield, this last request upset it altogether.  He stared.

“I am glad to enjoy your co-operation, inspector,” he said.  “I prefer to know that a man of your calibre is of my camp!  You are evidently aware that Harley has secured an elaborate series of snapshots of persons known to Miss Oppner and to my niece.  Of the several hundreds of persons photographed, only one negative proved to be interesting.  I have enlarged the photograph myself.  Here it is!”

He took a photograph from the drawer.

“This gentleman,” he continued, “was taken in the act of bowing to Lady Mary and Miss Oppner at the corner of Bond Street.”

Sheffield glanced at the photograph.  It represented a strikingly handsome man, with dark, curling hair and singularly flashing eyes, who was in the act of raising his hat.

“It’s Severac Bablon!” said the inspector simply.

“Ah!” cried Belford.  “So I thought!  So I thought!”

“May I take it with me?”

“I think not, inspector.  You know the man; it is scarcely necessary.”  And with a certain displeasure he laid the enlargement upon the table.

The detective accepted his refusal with one of the awkward bows.

“Regarding your protection to-night, sir,” he said, standing up and buttoning his coat, “there are six men on special duty round the house, and no one can possibly get in unseen.”

The Home Secretary, smiling, glanced at his watch.  “A quarter to nine!” he said.  “He has fifteen minutes in which to make good his bluff.  But I do not fear interruption.”

Sheffield awkwardly returned the statesman’s bow of dismissal, and withdrew under the patronage of a splendid footman.  As the door closed, Mr. Belford, with a long sigh of relief, stepped to a bookcase and selected Petronius Arbiter’s “Satyricon.”

Book in hand, he slid back the noiseless glass doors of the conservatory.  A close smell of tropical plant life crept into the room, but this was as frankincense and myrrh to his nostrils.  He passed through and seated himself in a cushioned cane chair amid the rare flora.  Switching on a shaded lamp conveniently hung in this retreat, he settled down to read.

For it was a favourite relaxation of the right honourable gentleman’s to bury himself amid exotic blooms, and in such congenial company as that of the Patrician aesthete, rekindle the torches of voluptuous Rome.

A few minutes later: 

“Am I nowhere immune from interruption?” muttered Mr. Belford, with the nearest approach to irritability of which his equable temper was deemed capable.

But the next moment his genial smile dawned, as the charming face of his niece, Lady Mary Evershed, peeped through the foliage.

“Truman was afraid to interrupt you, uncle, as you were in your cell!  But Inspector Sheffield is asking for you, and seems very excited.”

“Dear me!” said her uncle, glancing at his watch; “but I saw him fifteen minutes ago!  It has just gone nine.”  Then, recalling Severac Bablon’s boastful message:  “He has not dared to attempt it!  Unless-can it be that he is arrested?  Tell Truman to send the inspector here, Mary.”

The girl, with a little puzzled frown on her forehead, withdrew, and almost immediately a heavy step sounded in the library, and Chief-Inspector Sheffield, pushing past the footman, burst unceremoniously into the conservatory.  His face was flushed, and his eyes were angrily bright.

“We’ve been hoaxed, sir!” he cried.  “We’ve been hoaxed!”

Mr. Belford raised a white hand.

“My dear inspector,” he said, “be calm, I beg of you!  Will you not take a seat and explain this matter to me?”

Sheffield dropped into a chair, but the flow of excited words would not be stayed nor dammed.

“He’s tricked us again!” he burst out.  “I suspect what he wanted, sir, and I rely on you to give me all the help you can!  I know Paul Harley has got hold of evidence that we couldn’t get; but a C.I.D. man can’t spend a week making love to Lady Mary Evershed’s maid -

“But others are better able to devote that amount of time to my maid, I suppose?”

The interruption startled Mr. Belford out of his habitual calm, and startled the detective into sudden silence.

Lady Mary stood at the door of the conservatory.

“I am sorry to appear as an eavesdropper,” she continued; “but, as a matter of fact, I had never left the study!”

“Er-Mary,” began the Home Secretary, but for once in a way he was at a loss for words.  He knew from experience that the most obstreperous friend “opposite” was easier to deal with than a pretty niece.

“Zoe is here with me, too,” said Mary, and the frizzy head of Zoe Oppner appeared over her friend’s shoulder.  “We are sorry to have overheard Mr. Sheffield’s words, but I think we have heard too much not to ask to hear more.  Do I understand, inspector, that someone has been spying on my maid?”

Inspector Sheffield glanced at the Right Hon. Walter Belford, and read an appeal in the eyes behind the pince-nez.  He squared his shoulders in a manner that had something admirably manly about it-and told a straightforward lie.

“One of the Pinkerton men engaged by Mr. Oppner tried to get some letters from your maid, I believe; but there’s not a scrap of evidence on the market, so he must have failed!”

“Evidence of what?” asked Zoe Oppner sharply.

Mr. Belford nervously tapped his fingers upon the chair-arm.

“Of your friendship, and Lady Mary’s with Severac Bablon!” replied the inspector boldly.

Lady Mary was pale, and her eyes grew wide; but the American girl laughed with undisguised glee.

“Severac Bablon has never done a dirty thing yet,” she said.  “If we knew him we should be proud of it!  Come on, Mary!  Mr. Belford, I’m almost ashamed of you!  You’re nearly as bad as pa!”

They withdrew, and Mr. Belford heaved a great sigh of relief.

“Thank you, inspector,” he said.  “Lady Mary would never understand that I sought only to save her from compromising herself.  I am glad that the letters are in such safe hands as yours.”

“But they’re not!” cried Sheffield, leaping excitedly to his feet.

Gruffness had come into his voice, which the other ascribed to excitement.

“How so?”

An expression of blank wonderment was upon the politician’s face.

Because I never had them!  Because Ive never had a scrap of anything in black and white!  Because Ive been tied up in an old tool-shed in a turnip field for the past half-hour!  And because the man who marched through my silly troop a while ago and came in here and got back I dont know what important evidence-was Severac Bablon!”

It was a verbal thunderbolt.  Mr. Belford sat with his eyes upon the detective’s face-speechless.  And now he perceived minor differences.  The difference in voice he already had noted:  now he saw that the eyes of the real Inspector Sheffield were many shades lighter than those of the spurious; that the red face was heavier and more rounded.  It was almost incredible, but not quite.  He had seen Tree play Falstaff, and the art of Severac Bablon was only a shade greater.

“He’s had months to study me!” explained the detective tersely.  Then:  “I’m stopping at the ‘Golden Tiger,’ in the village.  I’d been over the ground in daylight, and I sent the men along first.  They were round the house by half-past seven.  Just as I turned the corner out of the High Street a big grey car overtook me; out jumped two fellows and had a jiu-jitsu hold on in a second!  They gagged me and tied me up inside, all the time apologising and hoping they weren’t hurting me!  They drove me to this shed and left me there.  It was five minutes to nine when one of them came back and untied my hands, giving himself a start while I undid the rest of the knots.  Here I am!  Where’s Severac Bablon?”

The Right Hon. Walter Belford became the man of action again.  He pulled out his watch.

“Twenty-five minutes since he left the house,” he said.  “But he may not have taken the road at once.”

He rang.

“Truman,” he cried to the footman, “the limousine ready-immediately!  This way, inspector!”

Off he went through the Circular Study, Sheffield following.  At the door Mr. Belford paused-and turned back.

He bent over his writing-table, searching for his own careful enlargement of Severac Bablon’s photograph.

Severac Bablon had not taken it with him, nor had he returned to the room.

But it was gone!

“Rome divided!  Treason in the camp!” he said, sotto voce.  Then, aloud:  “This way, inspector!”

The tower of Womsley Old Place is a conspicuous landmark, to be seen from distant points in the surrounding country, and visible for some miles out to sea.

Mr. Belford raced up the many stairs at a speed which belied the story of his silver-grey hair, and which left Inspector Sheffield hopelessly in the rear.  When at last the Scotland Yard man dragged weary feet into the little square chamber at the summit, he saw the Home Secretary with his eyes to the lens of a huge telescope, sweeping the country-side for signs of the daring fugitive.

An unclouded moon bathed the landscape in solemn light.  To north, east, and west rolled the billows of the Downs, a verdant ocean.  On the south the country was wooded, whilst in the south-east might be seen the gleaming expanse of the English Channel, a molten silver floor, its distant edge seemingly upholding the pure blue sky dome.  Roads inland showed as white chalk lines, meadows as squares on a chess-board, houses and farmsteads as chess-men.

“If he has made for Eastbourne we have lost him!” muttered Mr. Belford.  “If for Newhaven or Lewes we may not be too late.  But there is a possibility -ah!  Yes; it is!  They are making for Tunbridge Wells-perhaps for London!  Quick, inspector!  Don’t move the telescope.  On the straight road leading to the Norman church tower!  Is that the car?”

Sheffield lowered his eye to the glass, and after some little delay got a sight of a long-bodied, waspish, shape, creeping, insect-wise, along a white chalk mark.  His eye growing more accustomed to the glass, he made it out for a grey car.

“There’s a chance, sir.  It looks about the right cut.”

“This way, inspector!  We will take the risk.”

Down the tower stairs they sped, Sheffield stumbling and delaying in the dark and making better going where the light from a window showed the stairs clearly.

“If that is he,” panted the Home Secretary, “the motor is not a powerful one.  It is probably one hired for the occasion.”

They came out from the tower into the hall and passed Lady Mary-who glanced away with an odd expression-and Zoe Oppner.  Zoe’s pretty face was flushed, and her breast rose and fell quickly.  Her eyes were sparkling, but she lowered them as the excited pair ran by.

The chauffeur was ready to start, when Mr. Belford, hatless, leapt on to a footboard of the throbbing car with the agility of a sailor, Sheffield more slowly following suit, for he would have preferred an inside berth.

A man in a blue serge suit touched the inspector’s arm.

“What shall we do, sir?”

“Wait here.”

The limousine was off.

“Left! left!” directed Mr. Belford, and the man swung sharply round the curve and into the lane bordering the gardens of Womsley Old Place.

“Right!”

They leapt about again, and were humming along a chalky white road.

“Left!  Straight ahead!  Make for the church!  Open her out!”

The pursuit had commenced!

Some dormant trait in the blood of His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department had risen above the surface of suave, polished courtesy which ordinarily passed for the character of the Right Hon. Walter Belford.  The veneer was off, and this was a primitive Belford, kin of the Roger de Belfourd who had established the fortunes of the house.  The eyes behind the pince-nez were hard and bright; the fine nostrils quivered with the joy of the chase; and the long, lean neck, protruding from the characteristically low collar, was strung up to whipcord tension.

“Let her go!” he shouted, his silvern hair streaming out grotesquely.  “Cut through Church Lane!”

“It’s an awful road, sir!” The chauffeur’s voice was blown back in his teeth.

“Damn the road!” said the Right Hon. Walter Belford.

So, suddenly the powerful machine, spurning the solid earth like some huge, infuriated brute, leapt sideways, two tyres thrashing empty air, and went howling through an arch of verdure, between hedges which seemed to shrink to right and left from its devastating course.

The man was understood to say something about “Overweighted on her head.”

“Scissors!” muttered Inspector Sheffield, wedging his bulk firmly against the front window and clutching at anything that offered.  “I hope there are no police traps on this road!”

“He delayed for something!” yelled Belford through trumpeted hands.  “We shall catch him by Grimsdyke Farm!”

Sheffield wondered what that vastly daring man had delayed for.  Belford, with the fact of the missing photograph fresh in his mind, thought he knew.

The old Norman church tower came rushing now to meet them; looked down upon them, each venerable, lichened stone a mockery of this snorting, ephemeral thing of the Speed Age; and dropped behind to join the other vague memories which represented six miles of Sussex.

“Straight ahead now!  Grimsdyke!”

Down swept the white road into a great bowl.  Down shrieked the quivering limousine, and Inspector Sheffield crouched back with an uncomfortable sinking in the pit of the stomach, such as he had not known since he had adventured his weighty person on a “joy-ride” at an exhibition.

From the time they had left Womsley Old Place the speed had been consistently high, but now it rose to something enormous; increasing with every ten yards of the slope, it became terrific.  The bottom was reached, and the climb began; but for some time little diminution was perceptible in their headlong progress.  Then it began to tell, and presently they were mounting the long acclivity at what seemed a tortoise pace after the breathless drop into the valley.

The car rose to the brow, and Mr. Belford mounted recklessly beside the chauffeur, peering ahead under arched palms over the moon-bathed country-side.

“There they are!  There they are!  We shall overtake them at the old farm!”

His excitement was intensely contagious.  Sheffield, who had been wedged upon the footboard, rose unsteadily, and, supporting himself with difficulty, looked along the gleaming ribbon of road.

There they were!  The grey car was clearly discernible now, and even at that distance he could estimate something of her progress.  He exulted to note that capture was becoming merely a question of minutes!

Then came a doubt.  Suppose it should prove to be the wrong car!

Nearer they drew, and nearer.

The fugitives topped a slope, and against the blue sky was silhouetted a figure which stood upright in the car-the figure of a big man with raised arms and out-turned elbows.  He was peering back, just as Belford was peering forward.

“Look at his bowler hat!” yelled Sheffield.  “Why, it might be me!”

“It might!” shouted Mr. Belford; “but it isn’t!  It’s Severac Bablon!”

A wood dipped down to the roadside, and its shadows ate up their quarry; a breathless, nervous interval, and its glooms enveloped Mr. Belford’s party in turn.  From out of the darkness the road ahead was clearly visible.  Deserted farm buildings lay scattered in their path where the trees ended.

The trees slipped behind, and the old farm rose in front.

At the gate of the yard stood the grey car-empty!

“Pull up!  Pull up!” cried Mr. Belford.

But long before the car became stationary he had precipitated himself into the road.

Sheffield dropped heavily behind him, and grasped him by the arm.

“One moment, sir!” he said.

His voice was calm again.  He was quite in his element now.  A criminal had to be apprehended, and the circumstances, though difficult, were not unfamiliar.  But strategy was called for; there must be no hot-headed blundering.

“Yes?  What is it?” demanded the Home Secretary excitedly.

“It’s this, sir:  he’ll give us the slip yet, if we don’t go slow!  Now, you take charge of the grey car.  That’s your post, sir.  Here-have my revolver.  Step out into the lane there, and see nobody rushes the car!”

“Good-I agree!” cried Mr. Belford, and took the revolver.

“You, young fellow,” continued the inspector, addressing the chauffeur, “may know something of the ins and outs of this place.  Do you know if there’s a back door to the main building?”

“There is-yes-down behind that barn.”

“Then pull out a big spanner, or anything handy, and go round there.  When you reach the door, whistle.  Stop there unless you hear my whistle inside or till I come through and join you.  If he’s not in the main building we can start on the outhouses.  But his escape is cut off all the time by Mr. Belford-see?”

“Quite right, inspector!  Quite right!” cried Mr. Belford.  “Go ahead!  I will get to the car!  Go ahead!”

Off ran the agile politician to his appointed post; and the chauffeur, armed with a heavy spanner, disappeared in the shadow of the barn.  Sheffield, taking from his breast-pocket an electric torch, strode up to the doorless entrance of the abandoned farm, and waited.