THE SINS OF SEVERAC BABLON
By Sax Rohmer
CASSELL AND COMPANY, LTD London, New York, Toronto & Melbourne
First published January 1914. Popular Edition February 1919.
1. TO INTRODUCE MR. JULIUS ROHSCHEIMER
2. "THIRTY MEN WHO WERE ALL ALIKE"
3. MIDNIGHT—AND THE MAN
4. THE HEAD OF CAESAR
5. A MYSTIC HAND
6. THE SHADOW OF SEVERAC BABLON
7. THE RING
8. IN THE DRESSING-ROOM
9. ES-SINDIBAD OF CADOGAN GARDENS
11. MR. SANRACK VISITS THE HOTEL ASTORIA
12. LOVE, LUCRE AND MR. ALDEN
13. THE LISTENER
14. ZOE DREAMS
15. AT "THE CEDARS"
16. THE LAMP AND THE MASK
17. THE DAMASCUS CURTAIN
18. A WHITE ORCHID
19. THREE LETTERS
20. CLOSED DOORS
21. A CORNER IN MILLIONAIRES
22. THE TURKISH YATAGHAN
23. M. LEVI
25. AN OFFICIAL CALL
27. YELLOW CIGARETTES
28. AT THE PALACE—AND LATER
TO INTRODUCE MR. JULIUS ROHSCHEIMER
"There's half a score of your ancestral halls," said Julius Rohscheimer, "that I could sell up to-morrow morning!"
Of the quartet that heard his words no two members seemed quite similarly impressed.
The pale face of Adeler, the great financier's confidential secretary, expressed no emotion whatever. Sir Richard Haredale flashed contempt from his grey eyes—only to veil his scorn of the man's vulgarity beneath a cloud of tobacco smoke. Tom Sheard, of the Gleaner, drew down a corner of his mouth and felt ashamed of the acquaintance. Denby, the music-hall comedian, softly whistled those bars of a popular ballad set to the words, "I stood in old Jerusalem."
"Come along to Park Lane with me," continued Rohscheimer, fixing his dull, prominent eyes upon Sheard, "and you'll see more English nobility than you'd find inside the House of Lords!"
"What's made him break out?" the comedian whispered, aside, to Adeler. For it was an open secret that this man, whose financial operations shook the thrones of monarchy, whose social fetes were attended by the smartest people, was subject to outbursts of the kind which now saw him seated before a rapidly emptying magnum in a corner of the great restaurant. At such times he would frequent the promenades of music-halls, consorting with whom he found there, and would display the gross vulgarity of a Whitechapel pawnbroker or tenth-rate variety agent.
"'S-sh!" replied the secretary. "A big coup! It is always so with him. Mr. Rohscheimer is overwrought. I shall induce him to take a holiday."
"Trip up the Jordan?" suggested Denby, with cheery rudeness.
The secretary's drooping eyelids flickered significantly, but no other indication of resentment displayed itself upon that impassive face.
"A good Jew is proud of his race—and with reason!" he said quietly. "There are Jews and Jews."
He turned, deferentially, to his employer—that great man having solicited his attention with the words, "Hark to him, Adeler!"
"I did not quite catch Mr. Sheard's remark," said Adeler.
"I merely invited Mr. Rohscheimer to observe the scene upon his right," explained Sheard.
The others turned their eyes in that direction. Through a screen of palm leaves the rose-shaded table lights, sparkling silver, and snowy covers of the supper room were visible. Here a high-light gleamed upon a bare shoulder; there, a stalwart male back showed, blocked out in bold black upon the bright canvas. Waiters flitted noiselessly about. The drone of that vocal orchestra filled the place: the masculine conversation, the brass and wood-wind—the sweeter tones of women, the violins; their laughter, tremolo passages.
"I'm observing it," growled Rohscheimer. "Nobody in particular there."
"There is comfort, luxury, there," said Sheard.
The financier stared, uncomprehensively.
"Now look out yonder," continued the other.
It was a different prospect whereto he directed their eyes.
The diminuendo of the Embankment lamps, the steely glitter of the waters beyond, the looming bulk of the bridge, the silhouette shape of the On monolith; these things lay below them, dimly to be seen from the brilliant room. Within was warmth, light, and gladness; without, a cold place of shadows, limned in the grey of discontent and the black of want and desolation.
"Every seat there," continued Sheard, as the company gazed vaguely from the window, "has its burden of hopelessness and misery. Ranks of homeless wretches form up in the arch yonder, awaiting the arrival of the Salvation Army officials. Where, in the whole world, can misery in bulk be found thus side by side with all that wealth can procure?"
There was a brief silence. Sheard was on his hobbyhorse, and there were few there disposed to follow him. The views of the Gleaner are not everybody's money.
"What sort of gas are you handing us out?" asked Rohscheimer. "Those lazy scamps don't deserve any comfort; they never worked to get it! The people here are moneyed people."
"Just so!" interrupted Sheard, taking up the challenge with true Gleaner ardour. "Moneyed people! That's the whole distinction in two words!"
"Well, then—what about it?"
"This—that if every guest now in the hotel would write a cheque for an amount representing 1 per cent. of his weekly income, every man, woman, and child under the arch yonder would be provided with board and lodging for the next six months!"
"Why do it?" demanded Rohscheimer, not unreasonably. "Why feed 'em up on idleness?"
"Their idleness may be compulsory," replied Sheard. "Few would employ a starving man while a well-nourished one was available."
"Cut the Socialist twaddle!" directed the other coarsely. "It gets on my nerves! You and your cheques! Who'd you make 'em payable to? Editor of the Gleaner."
"I would suggest," said Sir Richard Haredale, smiling, "to Severac Bablon."
"To who?" inquired Rohscheimer, with greater interest than grammar.
"Severac Bablon," said Sheard, informatively, "the man who gave a hundred dollars to each of the hands discharged from the Runek Mill, somewhere in Ontario. That's whom you mean, isn't it, Haredale?"
"Yes," assented the latter. "I was reading about it to-day."
"We had it in this morning," continued Sheard. "Two thousand men."
"Eh?" grunted Rohscheimer hoarsely.
"Two thousand men," repeated Sheard. "Each of them received notes to the value of a hundred dollars on the morning after the mill closed down, and a card, 'With the compliments of Severac Bablon.'"
"Forty thousand pounds!" shouted the millionaire. "I don't believe it!"
"It's confirmed by Reuter to-night."
"Then the man's a madman!" pronounced Rohscheimer conclusively.
"Pity he doesn't have a cut at London!" came Denby's voice.
"Is it?" growled the previous speaker. "Don't you believe it! A maniac like that would mean ruination for business if he was allowed to get away with it!"
"Ah, well!" yawned Sheard, standing up and glancing at his watch, "you may be right. Anyway, I've got a report to put in. I'm off!"
"Me, too!" said the financier thickly. "Come on, Haredale. We're overdue at Park Lane! It's time we were on view in Park Lane, Adeler!"
The tide of our narrative setting in that direction, it will be well if we, too, look in at the Rohscheimer establishment. We shall find ourselves in brilliant company.
Julius's harshest critics were forced to concede that the house in Park Lane was a focus of all smart society. Yet smart society felt oddly ill at ease in the salon of Mrs. Julius Rohscheimer. Nobody knew whether the man to whom he might be talking at the moment were endeavouring to arrange a mortgage with Rohscheimer; whether the man's wife had fallen in arrears with her interest—to the imminent peril of the family necklace; or whether the man had simply dropped in because others of his set did so, and because, being invited, he chanced to have nothing better to do.
These things did not add to the gaiety of the entertainments, but of their brilliancy there could be no possible doubt.
Jewish society was well represented, and neither at Streeter's nor elsewhere could a finer display of diamonds be viewed than upon one of Mrs. Rohscheimer's nights. The lady had enjoyed some reputation as a hostess before the demise of her first husband had led her to seek consolation in the arms (and in the cheque-book) of the financier. So the house in Park Lane was visited by the smartest people—to the mutual satisfaction of host and hostess.
"Where's the Dook?" inquired the former, peering over a gilded balustrade at the throng below. They had entered, unseen, by a private stair.
"I understand," replied Haredale, "that the Duke is unfortunately indisposed."
"Never turns up!" growled Rohscheimer.
"Never likely to!" was Haredale's mental comment; but, his situation being a delicate one, he diplomatically replied, "We have certainly been unfortunate in that respect."
Haredale—one of the best-known men in town—worked as few men work to bring the right people to the house in Park Lane (and to save his commission). This arrangement led Mr. Rohscheimer to rejoice exceedingly over his growing social circle, and made Haredale so ashamed of himself that, so he declared to an intimate friend, he had not looked in a mirror for nine months, but relied implicitly upon the good taste of his man.
"Come up and give me your opinion of the new waistcoats," said Rohscheimer. "I don't fancy my luck in 'em, personally."
Following the financier to his dressing-room, Haredale, as a smart maid stood aside to let them pass, felt the girl's hand slip a note into his own. Glancing at it, behind Rohscheimer's back, he read: "Keep him away as much as ever you can."
"She has spotted him!" he muttered; and, in his sympathy with the difficulties of poor Mrs. Rohscheimer's position, he forgot, temporarily, the difficulties of his own.
"By the way," said Rohscheimer, "did you bring along that late edition with the details of the Runek Mill business?"
"Yes," said Haredale, producing it from his overcoat pocket.
"Just read it out, will you?" continued the other, "while I have a rub down."
Haredale nodded, and, lighting a cigarette, sank into a deep arm-chair and read the following paragraph:
"A FAIRY GODMOTHER IN ONTARIO
"(From our Toronto Correspondent)
"The identity of the philanthropist who indemnified the ex-employees of the Runek Mill still remains a mystery. Beyond the fact that his name, real or assumed, is Severac Bablon, nothing whatever is known regarding him. The business was recently acquired by J. J. Oppner, who will be remembered for his late gigantic operation on Wall Street, and the whole of the working staff received immediate notice to quit. No reason is assigned for this wholesale dismissal. But each of the 2,000 men thus suddenly thrown out of employment received at his home, in a plain envelope, stamped with the Three Rivers postmark, the sum of one hundred dollars, and a typed slip bearing the name, 'Severac Bablon.' Mr. Oppner had been approached, but is very reticent upon the subject. There is a rumour circulating here to the effect that he himself is the donor. But I have been unable to obtain confirmation of this."
"It wouldn't be Oppner," spluttered Rohscheimer, appearing, towel in hand. "He's not such a fool! Sounds like one of these 'Yellow' fables to me."
Haredale shrugged his shoulders, dropping the paper on the rug.
"A man at once wealthy and generous is an improbable, but not an impossible, being," he said.
Rohscheimer stared, dully. There were times when he suspected Haredale of being studiously rude to him. He preserved a gloomy silence throughout the rest of the period occupied by his toilet, and in silence descended to the ballroom.
The throng was considerable, and the warmth oppressive at what time Mrs. Rohscheimer's ball was in full swing. Scarcely anyone was dancing, but the walls were well lined, and the crush about the doors suggestive of a cup tie.
"Who's that tall chap with the white hair?" inquired Rohscheimer from the palmy corner to which Haredale discreetly had conveyed him.
"That is the Comte de Noeue," replied his informant; "a distinguished member of the French diplomatic corps."
"We're getting on!" chuckled the millionaire. "He's a good man to have, isn't he Haredale?"
"Highly respectable!" said the latter dryly.
"We don't seem to get the dooks, and so on?"
"The older nobility is highly conservative!" explained Haredale evasively. "But Mrs. Rohscheimer is a recognised leader of the smart set."
Rohscheimer swayed his massive head in bear-like discontent.
"I don't get the hang of this smart set business," he complained. "Aren't the dooks and earls and so on in the smart set?"
"Not strictly so!" answered Haredale, helping himself to brandy-and-soda.
This social conundrum was too much for the millionaire, and he lapsed into heavy silence, to be presently broken with the remark:
"All the Johnnies holding the wall up are alike, Haredale! It's funny I don't know any of 'em! You see them in the sixpenny monthlies, with the girl they're going to marry in the opposite column. Give me their names, will you—starting with the one this end?"
Haredale, intending, good-humouredly, to comply, glanced around the spacious room—only to realise that he, too, was unacquainted with the possibly distinguished company of muralites.
"I rather fancy," he said, "a lot of the people you mean are Discoveries—of Mrs. Rohscheimer's, you know—writers and painters and so forth."
"No, no!" complained the host. "I know all that lot—and they all know me! I mean the nice-looking fellows round the wall! I haven't been introduced, Haredale. They've come in since this waltz started."
Haredale looked again, and his slightly bored expression gave place to one of curiosity.
"THIRTY MEN WHO WERE ALL ALIKE"
The room was so inconveniently crowded that dancing was a mere farce, only kept up by the loyal support of Mrs. Rohscheimer's compatriots. The bulk of the company crowded around in intermingling groups, to the accompaniment of ceaseless shuffling and murmuring which all but drowned the strains of the celebrated orchestra. But lining the wall around was a rank of immaculately groomed gentlemen who seemed to assume a closer formation as Haredale, from behind the palms, observed them.
In two particulars this rank excited his curiosity.
The individuals comprising it were, as Rohscheimer had pointed out, remarkably alike, being all of a conventional Army type; and they were unobtrusively entering, one behind the other, and methodically taking up their places around the room!
Even as he watched, the last man entered, and the big double doors were closed behind him!
"What's this, Haredale?" came a hoarse whisper from Rohscheimer. "Where are these Johnnies comin' from? Does Mrs. R. know they're here?"
"Couldn't say," was the reply. "But it would be a simple matter for a number of impostors to gain access to the house whilst dancing was in progress, provided they came in small parties and looked the part."
"Impostors!" growled Rohscheimer uneasily. "Don't you think they've been invited, then?"
"Well, who shut those doors?" muttered Haredale, leaning across the little table the better to observe what was going forward.
"You don't mean——" began Rohscheimer, and broke off, as the orchestra dashed through the coda of the waltz and ceased.
For stark amazement froze the words upon his tongue.
Coincident with the last pair of dancers performing their final gyration and the hum of voices assuming a louder tone, each of the men standing around the walls produced a brace of revolvers and covered the particular group nearest to him!
The conversational hum rose to a momentary roar, and ceased abruptly. The horns of taxi-cabs passing below could be plainly heard, and the drone and rattle of motor-buses. Men who had done good work in other emergencies looked down the gleaming barrels, back to the crowds of women—and had no inspiration, but merely wondered. Nobody moved. Nobody fainted.
"Held up!" came, in pronounced Kansas, from somewhere amongst the crush.
"Quick!" whispered Haredale. "We're overlooked! Through the conservatory, and——"
Rohscheimer and Haredale turned, together, and each found himself looking directly into the little ring of a revolver's muzzle. A tall, slim figure in faultless evening dress stood behind them, half in the shadows. This mysterious stranger had jet black hair, and wore a black silk half-mask.
The melodramatic absurdity of the thing came home strongly to Haredale. But its harsh reality was equally obvious.
"Perhaps," continued the masked speaker, in a low, refined voice, and with a faint, elusive accent, "you will oblige me, Mr. Rohscheimer, by stepping forward so that your guests can see you? Sir Richard Haredale—may I trouble you?"
Rohscheimer, his heavy features slightly pale, rose unsteadily. Haredale, after a rapid glance about him, rose also, with tightened lips; and the trio moved forward into full view of the assembled company.
"The gentlemen surrounding you," said the man in the mask, slightly raising his voice, "are all sworn to the Cause which I represent. You would, perhaps, term them anarchists!"
An audible shudder passed through the assemblage.
"They are desperate men," he continued, "indifferent to death, and would, without compunction, shoot down everyone present—if I merely raised my hand! Each of them is a social pariah, with a price upon his head. Let no man think this is a jest! Any movement made without my permission will be instantly fatal."
Dzing! went the bell of a bus below. Grr-r-r! went the motor in re-starting. OO-oo! OO-oo! came from the horn of a taxi-cab. And around the wall stood the silent rank with the raised revolvers.
"I shall call upon those gentlemen whom I consider most philanthropic," resumed the musical voice, "to subscribe to my Cause! Mr. Rohscheimer, your host, will head the list with a diamond stud, valued at one thousand guineas, and two rings, representing, together, three thousand pounds! Place them on that pedestal, Mr. Rohscheimer!"
"I won't do it!" cried the financier, in rising cadence. "I defy you! I——"
"Cut it!" snapped Haredale roughly. "Don't be such a cad as to expose women——" He had caught sight of a pretty, pale face in the throng, that made the idea of these mysterious robbers opening fire doubly, trebly horrible. "It goes against the grain, but hand them over. We can do nothing—yet!"
"Thank you, Sir Richard!" said the masked spokesman, and waved aside the hand with which Haredale proffered his own signet ring. "I have not called upon you, sir! Mr. Hohsmann, your daughters would feel affronted did you not give them an opportunity of appearing upon the subscription list! The necklace and the aigrette will do! I shall post, of course, a formal receipt to Hamilton Place!"
And so the incredible comedy proceeded—until thousands of pounds' worth of jewellery lay upon the pedestal at the foot of a bronze statuette of Pandora!
"The list is closed!" called the spokesman. "Doors!"
Open came the doors at his command, and revealed to those who could see outside, a double rank of evening-dress bandits.
"The company," he resumed, "will pass out in single file to the white drawing-room. Mr. Rohscheimer—will you lead the way?"
In sullen submission out went Rohscheimer, and after him his guests—or, rather, his wife's guests—until that whole brilliant company was packed into the small white room. Someone had thoughtfully closed the shutters of the windows giving on Park Lane, and securely screwed them; so that, when the last straggler had entered, and the door was shut, they were in a trap!
"Listen, everybody!" came Haredale's voice. "Keep cool! You fellows by the door—get your shoulders to it!"
At his words, the men standing nearest to the door turned to execute these instructions, and were confronted by the following type-written notice pinned upon the white panels:—
"A detailed subscription list will appear in the leading papers to-morrow, and it will doubtless relieve and gratify subscribers to learn that the revolvers were not loaded!"
There was little delay after that. Within sixty seconds the door was open; within three minutes the wires were humming with the astounding news.
Tom Sheard, his work completed, was about to leave the Gleaner office, when—
"Sheard!" shouted the news editor from an upper landing. "Amazing business at Rohscheimer's in Park Lane! Robbery! Brigands! Terrific! Off you go! Taxi!"
And off went Sheard without delay.
He entered Park Lane, to find that part of the thoroughfare adjacent to the financier's house packed with vehicles of all sorts and sizes. Women in full dress, pressmen, policemen, loafers, were pouring out and rushing in to Mr. Rohscheimer's residence! Never before was such a scene witnessed at that hour of the night in Park Lane.
As he passed under the awning, pressing his way towards the steps, he encountered an excited young gentleman who wore a closed opera hat, but was evidently ignorant of his interesting appearance. This young gentleman he chanced to know, and having rectified the irregularity in his toilet, from him he secured some splendid copy.
"You see, I just dropped in to take a look round, and as I strolled up a mob of jokers jumped out of a cab just in front of me, and we all crawled in together, sort of thing. I happened to notice a footman going upstairs and two of the jokers I spoke about behind him. They were laughing, and so forth, and he was just on the first landing, when they nabbed him from behind—positive fact!—and threw the chap down on his face! I'm thinking it's a poor kind of joke when the other two fellows jolly well nobble me! Before I know what's up, I'm pushed into an anteroom or somewhere, and I hear these chaps banging the front door and running upstairs! I should have sung out like steam, only they'd handcuffed me wrong way round and tied a beastly cork arrangement in my mouth!
"Just before I burst a blood-vessel it occurred to me that I might as well keep quiet; so I sat on the floor listening; but I didn't hear anything for what seemed like an hour! Then there was a mob of fellows came downstairs—and the door opened. They seemed to slip out in twos and threes from what I could gather, and by the time they'd nearly all gone a perfect pandemonium broke out, upstairs and down!
"The servants—who'd all been locked in the cellar—got out first. Then Haredale came bounding downstairs, and, luckily for me, heard me kicking at the door. Then everybody was rushing about! Rohscheimer was bawling in the telephone! Some other chap was rushing for a doctor—for Adeler, who got knocked on the head in the library. Now here's the wretched police arresting everybody who looks as though he'd been in the Army! That's all the beastly description anyone can give! They suspected Dick Langley the minute they saw him, because he's got a military appearance! And I shouldn't be surprised to hear that they'd arrested every fellow in the Guards' Club!
"Here's the thing, though: they've all got clean away! With about forty thousand pounds' worth of jewellery! It's a preposterous sort of thing, isn't it?"
Sheard agreed that it was the most preposterous sort of thing imaginable; and, leaving his excited acquaintance, he set out to seek further particulars. But very few were forthcoming.
As to the manner in which the clique had obtained admission, that called for little explanation. They had simply presented themselves, armed with invitations, singly and in small parties, whilst dancing was in progress, and in a house open to such mixed society had been admitted without arousing suspicion. There was little that was obscure or inexplicable in the coup; it was an amazing display of force majeure, an act of stark audacity. It pointed to the existence in London of a hitherto unsuspected genius. Such was Sheard's opinion.
From an American guest, who had kept perfectly cool during the "hold-up," and had quietly taken stock of the robbers, he learnt that, exclusive of the spokesman, they numbered exactly thirty; were much of a similar build, being well-set-up men of military bearing; and, most extraordinary circumstance, were facially all alike!
"Gee! but it's a fact!" declared his informant. "They all had moderate fair hair, worn short and parted left-centre, neat blonde moustaches, and fresh complexions, and the whole thirty were like as beans!"
Two other interesting facts Sheard elicited from Adeler, who wore a white bandage about his damaged skull. The whole of the guests victimised were compatriots of their host.
"It is from those who are of my nation that they have taken all their booty," he said, smiling. "This daring robber has evidently strong racial prejudices! Then, each of the victims had received, during the past month threatening letters demanding money for various charities. These letters did not emanate from the institutions named, but were anonymous appeals. The point seems worth notice."
And so, armed with the usual police assurance that several sensational arrests might be expected in the morning, Sheard departed with this enthralling copy hot for the machines that had been stopped to take it.
When, thoroughly tired, he again quitted the Gleaner office, it was to direct his weary footsteps towards the Embankment and the all-night car that should bear him home.
Crossing Tallis Street, he became aware of a confused murmur proceeding from somewhere ahead, and as he approached nearer to the river this took definite form and proclaimed itself a chaotic chorus of human voices.
As he came out on to the Embankment an extraordinary scene presented itself.
Directly in his path stood a ragged object—a piece of social flotsam—a unit of London's misery. This poor filthy fellow was singing at the top of his voice, a music-hall song upon that fertile topic, "the girls," was dancing wildly around a dilapidated hat which stood upon the pavement at his feet, and was throwing sovereigns into this same hat from an apparently inexhaustible store in his coat pocket!
Seeing Sheard standing watching him, he changed his tune and burst into an extempore lyric, "The quids! The quids! The golden quids—the quids!" and so on, until, filled with a sudden hot suspicion, he snatched up his hat, with its jingling contents, hugged it to his breast, and ran like the wind!
Following him with his eyes as he made off towards Waterloo Bridge, the bewildered pressman all but came to the conclusion that he was the victim of a weird hallucination.
For the night was filled with the songs, the shouts, the curses, the screams, of a ragged army of wretches who threw up gold in the air—who juggled with gold—who played pitch-and-toss with gold—who ran with great handfuls of gold clutched to their bosoms—who pursued one another for gold—who fought to defend the gold they had gained—who wept for the gold they had lost.
One poor old woman knelt at the kerb, counting bright sovereigns into neat little piles, and perfectly indifferent to the advice of a kindly policeman, who, though evidently half dazed with the wonders of the night, urged her to get along to a safer place.
Two dilapidated tramps, one of whom wore a battered straw hat, whilst his friend held an ancient green parasol over his bare head, appeared arm-in-arm, displaying much elegance of deportment, and, hailing a passing cab, gave the address, "Savoy," with great aplomb.
Fights were plentiful, and the available police were kept busy arresting the combatants. Two officers passed Sheard, escorting a lean, ragged individual whose pockets jingled as he walked, and who spoke of the displeasure with which this unseemly arrest would fill "his people."
Presently a bewildered Salvation Army official appeared. Sheard promptly buttonholed him.
"Don't ask me, sir!" he said, in response to the obvious question. "Heaven only knows what it is about! But I can tell you this much: no less than forty thousand pounds has been given away on the Embankment to-night! And in gold! Such an incredible example of ill-considered generosity I've never heard of! More harm has been done to our work to-night than we can hope to rectify in a twelvemonth!
"Of course, it will do good in a few, a very few, cases. But, on the whole, it will do, I may say, incalculable harm. How was it distributed? In little paper bags, like those used by the banks. It sent half the poor fellows crazy! Just imagine—a broken-down wretch who'd lived on the verge of starvation for, maybe, years, suddenly has a bag of sovereigns put into his hand! Good heavens! what madness!"
"Who did the distributing?"
"That's the curious part of it! The bags were distributed by a number of men wearing the dark overcoats and uniform caps of the Salvation Army! That's how they managed to get through with the business without arousing the curiosity of the police. I don't know how many of them there were, but I should imagine twenty or thirty. They were through with it and gone before we woke up to what they had done!"
Sheard thanked him for his information, stood a moment, irresolute; and turned back once more to the Gleaner office.
* * * * *
Thus, then, did a strange personality announce his coming and flood the British press with adjectives.
The sensation created, on the following day, by the news of the Park Lane robbery was no greater than that occasioned by the news of the extraordinary Embankment affair.
"What do we deduce," demanded a talkative and obtrusively clever person in a late City train, "from the circumstance that all thirty of the Park Lane brigands were alike?"
"Obviously," replied a quiet voice, "that it was a 'make-up.' Thirty identical wigs, thirty identical moustaches, and the same grease-paint!"
A singularly handsome man was the speaker. He was dark, masterful, and had notably piercing eyes. The clever person became silent.
"Being all made up as a very common type of man-about-town," continued this striking-looking stranger, "they would pass unnoticed anywhere. If the police are looking for thirty blonde men of similar appearance they are childishly wasting their time. They are wasting their time in any event—as the future will show."
Everyone in the carriage was listening now, and a man in a corner asked: "Do you think there is any connection between the Park Lane and Embankment affairs, sir?"
"Think!" smiled the other, rising as the train slowed into Ludgate Hill. "You evidently have not seen this."
He handed his questioner an early edition of an evening paper, and with a terse "Good morning," left the carriage.
Glaringly displayed on the front page was the following:
WHO IS HE?
"We received early this morning the following advertisement, prepaid in cash, and insert it here by reason of the great interest which we feel sure it will possess for our readers:
"'On Behalf of the Poor Ones of the Embankment, I thank the following philanthropists for their generous donations:"
(Here followed a list of those guests of Mrs. Rohscheimer's who had been victimised upon the previous night, headed with the name of Julius Rohscheimer himself; and beside each name appeared an amount representing the value of the article, or articles, appropriated.)
"'They may rest assured that not one halfpenny has been deducted for working expenses. In fact, when the donations come to be realised the Operative may be the loser. But no matter. "Expend your money in pious uses, either voluntarily or by constraint."
"'(Signed) Severac Bablon.'"
The paper was passed around in silence.
"That fellow seemed to know a lot about it!" said someone.
None of the men replied; but each looked at the other strangely—and wondered.
MIDNIGHT—AND THE MAN
The next two days were busy ones for Sheard, who, from a variety of causes—the chief being his intimacy with the little circle which, whether it would or not, gathered around Mr. Julius Rohscheimer—found himself involved in the mystery of Severac Bablon. He had interviewed this man and that, endeavouring to obtain some coherent story of the great "hold up," but with little success. Everything was a mysterious maze, and Scotland Yard was without any clue that might lead to the solution. All the Fleet Street crime specialists had advanced theories, and now, on the night of the third day after the audacious robbery, Sheard was contributing his theory to the Sunday newspaper for which he worked.
The subject of his article was the identity of Severac Bablon, whom Sheard was endeavouring to prove to be not an individual, but a society; a society, so he argued, formed for the immolation of Capital upon the altars of Demos.
The course of reasoning that he had taken up proved more elusive than he had anticipated.
His bundle of notes lay before him on the table. The news of the latest outrage, the burning of the great Runek Mills in Ontario, had served to convince him that his solution was the right one; yet he could make no headway, and the labours of the last day or so had left him tired and drowsy.
He left his table and sank into an arm-chair by the study fire, knocking out his briar on a coal and carefully refilling and lighting that invaluable collaborator. With his data presently arranged in better mental order, he returned to the table and covered page after page with facile reasoning. Then the drowsiness which he could not altogether shake off crept upon him again, and staring at the words "Such societies have existed in fiction, now we have one existing in fact," he dropped into a doze—as the clock in the hall struck one.
When he awoke, with his chin on his breast, it was to observe, firstly, that the MS. no longer lay on the pad, and, secondly, on looking up, that a stranger sat in the arm-chair, opposite, reading it!
"Who——" began Sheard, starting to his feet.
Whereupon the stranger raised a white, protesting hand.
"Give me but one moment's grace, Mr. Sheard," he said quietly, "and I will at once apologise and explain!"
"What do you mean?" rapped the journalist. "How dare you enter my house in this way, and——" He broke off from sheer lack of words, for this calm, scrupulously dressed intruder was something outside the zone of things comprehensible.
In person he was slender, but of his height it was impossible to judge accurately whilst he remained seated. He was perfectly attired in evening-dress, and wore a heavy, fur-lined coat. A silk hat, by an eminent hatter, stood upon Sheard's writing-table, a pair of gloves beside it. A gold-mounted ebony walking-stick was propped against the fireplace. But the notable and unusual characteristic of the man was his face. Its beauty was literally amazing. Sheard, who had studied black-and-white, told himself that here was an ideal head—that of Apollo himself.
And this extraordinary man, with his absolutely flawless features composed, and his large, luminous eyes half closed, lounged in Sheard's study at half-past one in the early morning and toyed with an unfinished manuscript—like some old and privileged friend who had dropped in for a chat.
"Look here!" said the outraged pressman, stepping around the table as the calm effrontery of the thing burst fully upon him. "Get out! Now!"
"Mr. Sheard," said the other, "if I apologise frankly and fully for my intrusion, will you permit me to give my reasons for it?"
Sheard again found himself inarticulate. He was angrily conscious of a vague disquiet. The visitor's suave courtesy under circumstances so utterly unusual disarmed him, as it must have disarmed any average man similarly situated. For a moment his left fist clenched, his mind swung in the balance, irresolute. The other turned back a loose page and quietly resumed his perusal of the manuscript.
That decided Sheard's attitude, and he laughed.
Whereat the stranger again raised the protestant hand.
"We shall awake Mrs. Sheard!" he said solicitously. "And now, as I see you have decided to give me a hearing, let me begin by offering you my sincere apology for entering your house uninvited."
Sheard, his mind filled with a sense of phantasy, dropped into a chair opposite the visitor, reached into the cabinet at his elbow, and proffered a box of Turkish cigarettes.
"Your methods place you beyond the reach of ordinary castigation," he said. "I don't know your name and I don't know your business; but I honestly admire your stark impudence!"
"Very well," replied the other in his quiet, melodious voice, with its faint, elusive accent. "A compliment is intended, and I thank you! And now, I see you are wondering how I obtained admittance. Yet it is so simple. Your front door is not bolted, and Mrs. Sheard, but a few days since, had the misfortune to lose a key. You recollect? I found that key! Is it enough?"
"Quite enough!" said Sheard grimly. "But why go to the trouble? What do you want?"
"I want to insure that one, at least, of the influential dailies shall not persistently misrepresent my actions!"
"Then who——" began Sheard, and got no farther; for the stranger handed him a card—
"You see," continued the man already notorious in two continents, "your paper, here, is inaccurate in several important particulars! Your premises are incorrect, and your inferences consequently wrong!"
Sheard stared at him, silent, astounded.
"I have been described in the Press of England and America as an incendiary, because I burned the Runek Mills; as a maniac, because I compensated men cruelly thrown out of employment; as a thief, because I took from the rich in Park Lane and gave to the poor on the Embankment. I say that this is unjust!"
His eyes gleamed into a sudden blaze. The delicate, white hand that held Sheard's manuscript gripped it so harshly that the paper was crushed into a ball. That Severac Bablon was mad seemed an unavoidable conclusion; that he was forceful, dominant, a power to be counted with, was a truth legible in every line of his fine features, in every vibrant tone of his voice, in the fire of his eyes. The air of the study seemed charged with his electric passion.
Then, in an instant, he regained his former calm. Rising to his feet, he threw off the heavy coat he wore and stood, a tall, handsome figure, with his hands spread out, interrogatively.
"Do I look such a man?" he demanded.
Despite the theatrical savour of the thing, Sheard could not but feel the real sincerity of his appeal; and, as he stared, wondering, at the fine brow, the widely-opened eyes, the keen nostrils and delicate yet indomitable mouth and chin, he was forced to admit that here was no mere up-to-date cracksman, but something else, something more. "Is he mad?" flashed again through his mind.
"No!" smiled Severac Bablon, dropping back into the chair; "I am as sane as you yourself!"
"Have I questioned it?"
"With your eyes and the left corner of your mouth, yes!" Sheard was silent.
"I shall not weary you with a detailed exculpation of my acts," continued his visitor; "but you have a list on your table, no doubt, of the people whom I forced to assist the Embankment poor?"
"Mention but one whose name has ever before been associated with charity; I mean the charity that has no relation to advertisement! You are silent! You say"—glancing over the unfinished article—"that 'this was a capricious burlesque of true philanthropy.' I reply that it served its purpose—of proclaiming my arrival in London and of clearly demonstrating the purpose of my coming! You ask who are my accomplices! I answer—they are as the sands of the desert! You seek to learn who I am. Seek, rather, to learn what I am!"
"Why have you selected me for this—honour?"
"I overheard some remarks of yours, contrasting a restaurant supper-room with the Embankment which appealed to me! But, to come to the point, do you believe me to be a rogue?"
Sheard smiled a trifle uneasily.
"You are doubtful," the other continued. "It has entered your mind that a proper course would be to ring up Scotland Yard! Instead, come with me! I will show you how little you know of me and of what I can do. I will show you that no door is closed to me! Why do you hesitate? You shall be home again, safe, within two hours. I pledge my word!"
Possessing the true journalistic soul, Sheard was sorely tempted; for to the passion of the copy-hunter such an invitation could not fail in its appeal. With only a momentary hesitation, he stood up.
"I'll come!" he said.
A smart landaulette stood waiting outside the house; and, without a word to the chauffeur, Severac Bablon opened the door and entered after Sheard. The motor immediately started, and the car moved off silently. The blinds were drawn.
"You will have to trust yourself implicitly in my hands," said Sheard's extraordinary companion. "In a moment I shall ask you to fasten your handkerchief about your eyes and to give me your word that you are securely blindfolded!"
"Is it necessary?"
"Quite! Are you nervous?"
There was a brief interval of silence, during which the car, as well as it was possible to judge, whirled through the deserted streets at a furious speed.
"Will you oblige me?" came the musical voice.
The journalist took out his pocket-handkerchief, and making it into a bandage, tied it firmly about his head.
"Are you ready?" asked Severac Bablon.
A click told of a raised blind.
"Can you see?"
"Not a thing!"
"Then take my hand and follow quickly. Do not speak; do not stumble!"
Cautiously feeling his way, Sheard, one hand clasping that of his guide, stepped out into the keen night air, and was assisted by some third person—probably the chauffeur—on to the roof of the car!
"Be silent!" from Severac Bablon. "Fear nothing! Step forward as your feet will be directed and trust implicitly to me!"
As a man in a dream Sheard stood there—on the roof of a motor-car, in a London street—and waited. There came dimly to his ears, and from no great distance, the sound of late traffic along what he judged to be a main road. But immediately about him quiet reigned. They were evidently in some deserted back-water of a great thoroughfare. A faint scuffling sound arose, followed by that of someone lightly dropping upon a stone pavement.
Then an arm was slipped about him and he was directed, in a whisper, to step forward. He found his foot upon what he thought to be a flat railing. His ankle was grasped from below and the voice of Severac Bablon came, "On to my shoulders—so!"
Still with the supporting arm about him, he stepped gingerly forward—and stood upon the shoulders of the man below.
"Stand quite rigidly!" said Severac Bablon.
He obeyed; and was lifted, lightly as a feather, and deposited upon the ground! It was such a feat as he had seen professional athletes perform, and he marvelled at the physical strength of his companion.
A keen zest for this extravagant adventure seized him. He thought that it must be good to be a burglar. Then, as he heard the motor re-started and the car move off, a sudden qualm of disquiet came; for it was tantamount to burning one's boats.
"Take my hand!" he heard; and was led to the head of a flight of steps. Cautiously he felt his way down, in the wake of his guide.
A key was turned in a well-oiled lock, and he was guided inside a building. There was a faint, crypt-like smell—vaguely familiar.
"Quick!" said the soft voice—"remove your boots and leave them here!"
Sheard obeyed, and holding the guiding hand tightly in his own, traversed a stone-paved corridor. Doors were unlocked and re-locked. A flight of steps was negotiated in phantom silence; for his companion's footsteps, like his own, were noiseless. Another door was unlocked.
"Now!" came the whispered words: "Remove the handkerchief!"
Rapidly enough, Sheard obeyed, and, burning with curiosity, looked about him.
"Good heavens!" he muttered.
A supernatural fear of his mysterious cicerone momentarily possessed him. For he thought that he stood in a lofty pagan temple!
High above his head a watery moonbeam filtered through a window, and spilled its light about the base of a gigantic stone pillar. Towering shapes, as of statues of gods, loomed, awesomely, in the gloom. Behind the pillar dimly he could discern a painted procession of deities upon the wall. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the tall figure of Severac Bablon was at his elbow.
"Where do you stand?" questioned his low voice.
And, like an inspiration, the truth burst in upon Sheard's mind.
"The British Museum!" he whispered hoarsely.
"Correct!" was the answer; "the treasure-house of your modern Babylon! Wait, now, until I return; and, if you have no relish for arrest as a burglar, do not move—do not breathe!"
With that, he was gone, into the dense shadows about; and Henry Thomas Sheard, of the Gleaner, found himself, at, approximately, a quarter-past two in the morning, standing in an apartment of the British Museum, with no better explanation to offer, in the event of detection, than that he had come there in the company of Severac Bablon.
He thought of the many printing-presses busy, even then, with the deductions of Fleet Street theorists, regarding this man of mystery. All of their conclusions must necessarily be wrong, since their premises were certainly so. For which of them who had assured his readers that Severac Bablon was a common cracksman (on a large scale) would not have reconsidered his opinion had he learned that the common cracksman held private keys of the national treasure-house?
His eyes growing more accustomed to the darkness, Sheard began to see more clearly the objects about him. A seated figure of the Pharaoh Seti I. surveyed him with a scorn but thinly veiled; beyond, two towering Assyrian bulls showed gigantic in the semi-light. He could discern, now, the whole length of the lofty hall—a carven avenue; and, as his gaze wandered along that dim vista, he detected a black shape emerging from the blacker shadows beyond the bulls.
It was Severac Bablon. In an instant he stood beside him, and Sheard saw that he carried a bag.
"Follow me—quickly!" he said. "Not a second to spare!"
But too fully alive to their peril, Sheard slipped away in the wake of this greatly daring man. The horror of his position was strong upon him now.
Blindly he stumbled forward, upstairs, around a sharp corner, and then a door was unlocked and re-locked behind them. "Egyptian Room!" came a quick whisper. "In here!"
A white beam cut the blackness, temporarily dazzling him, and Sheard saw that his companion was directing the light of an electric torch into a wall-cabinet—which he held open. It contained mummy cases, and, without quite knowing how he got there, Sheard found himself crouching behind one. Severac Bablon vanished.
Darkness followed, and to his ears stole the sound of distant voices.
The voices grew louder.
Behind him, upon the back of the cabinet, danced a sudden disc of light, and, within it, a moving shadow! Someone was searching the room!
Muffled and indistinct the voices sounded through the glass and the mummy-case; but that the searchers were standing within a foot of his hiding-place Sheard was painfully certain. He shrank behind the sarcophagus lid like a tortoise within its shell, fearful lest a hand, an arm, a patch of clothing should protrude.
THE HEAD OF CAESAR
The voices died away. A door banged somewhere.
Then Sheard all but cried out; for a hand was laid upon his arm.
"Ssh!" came Severac Bablon's voice from the next mummy-case; and a creak told of the cabinet door swinging open. "This way!"
Sheard followed immediately, and was guided along the whole length of the room. A door was unlocked and re-locked behind them. Downstairs they passed, and along a narrow corridor lined with cases, as he could dimly see. Through another door they went, and came upon stone steps.
"Your boots!" said his companion, and put them into his hands.
Rapidly enough he fastened them. A faint creak was followed by a draught of cool air; and, being gently pushed forward, Sheard found himself outside the Museum and somewhere in the rear of the building. The place lay in deep shadow.
"Sss! Sss!" came in his ear. "Quiet!"
Whilst he all but held his breath, a policeman tramped past slowly outside the railings. As the sound of his solid tread died away, Severac Bablon raised something to his lips and blew a long-sustained, minor note—shrill, eerie.
A motor-car appeared, as if by magic, stopped before them, and was backed right on to the pavement. The chauffeur, mounting on the roof, threw a short rope ladder across the railings.
"Up!" Sheard was directed, and, nothing loath, climbed over.
He was joined immediately by his companion in this night's bizarre adventures; and, almost before he realised that they were safe, he found himself seated once more in the swiftly moving car.
"What's the meaning of it?" he demanded rapidly.
"Fear nothing!" was the reply. "You have my word!"
"But to what are you committing me?"
"To nothing that shall lie very heavily upon your conscience! You have seen, to-night, something of my opportunities. With the treasures of the nation thus at my mercy, am I a common cracksman? If I were, should I not ere this have removed the portable gems of the collection? I say to you again, that no door is closed to me; yet never have I sought to enrich myself. But why should these things lie idle, when they are such all-powerful instruments?"
"I don't follow you."
"To-morrow all will be clear!"
"Why did you blindfold me?"
"Should you have followed had you seen where I led? I wish to number you among my friends. You are not of my people, and I can claim no fealty of you; but I desire your friendship. Can I count upon it?"
The light of a street-lamp flashed momentarily into the car, striking a dull, venomous green spark from a curious ring which Severac Bablon wore. In some strange fashion it startled Sheard, but, in the ensuing darkness, he sought out the handsome face of his companion and found the big, luminous eyes fixed upon him. Something about the man—his daring, perhaps, his enthusiasm, his utterly mysterious purpose—appealed, suddenly, all but irresistibly.
Sheard held out his hand. And withdrew it again.
"To-morrow——" he began.
"To-morrow you will have no choice!"
"How so? You have placed yourself in my hands. I can now, if I desire, publish your description!—report all that you have told me—all that I have seen!"
"You will not do so! You will be my friend, my defender in the Press. Of what you have seen to-night you will say nothing!"
"No matter! It will be so!"
A silence fell between them that endured until the car pulled up before Sheard's gate.
With ironic courtesy, he invited Severac Bablon to enter and partake of some refreshment after the night's excitement. With a grace that made the journalist slightly ashamed of his irony, that incomprehensible man accepted.
Leaving him in the same arm-chair which he had occupied when first he set eyes upon him, Sheard went to the dining-room and returned with a siphon, a decanter, and glasses. He found Severac Bablon glancing through an edition of Brugsch's "Egypt Under the Pharaohs." He replaced the book on the shelf as Sheard entered.
"These Egyptologists," he said, "they amuse me! Dissolve them all in a giant test-tube, and the keenest analysis must fail to detect one single grain of imagination!"
His words aroused Sheard's curiosity, but the lateness of the hour precluded the possibility of any discussion upon the subject.
When, shortly, Severac Bablon made his departure, he paused at the gate and proffered his hand, which Sheard took without hesitation.
"Good-night—or, rather, good-morning!" he said smilingly. "We shall meet again very soon!"
The other, too tired to wonder what his words might portend, returned to the house, and, lingering only to scrawl a note that he was not to be awakened at the usual time, hastened to bed. As he laid his weary head upon the pillow the cold grey of dawn was stealing in at the windows and brushing out the depths of night's blacker shadows.
It was noon when Sheard awoke—to find his wife gently shaking him.
He sat up with a start.
"What is it, dear?"
"A messenger boy. Will you sign for the letter?"
But half awake, he took the pencil and signed. Then, sleepily, he tore open the envelope and read as follows.
"DEAR MR. SHEARD,—
"You were tired last night, so I did not further weary you with a discourse upon Egyptology; moreover, I had a matter of urgency to attend to; but you may remember I hinted that the initiated look beyond Brugsch.
"I should be indebted if you could possibly arrange to call upon Sir Leopold Jesson in Hamilton Place at half-past four. You will find him at home. It is important that you take a friend with you. In your Press capacity, desire him to show you his celebrated collection of pottery. Seize the opportunity to ask him for a subscription (not less than L10,000) towards the re-opening of the closed ward of Sladen Hospital. He will decline. Offer to accept, instead, the mahogany case which he has in his smaller Etruscan urn. When you have secured this, decide to accept a cheque also. Arrange to be alone in your study at 12.40 to-night.
"By the way, although Brugsch's book is elementary, there is something more behind it. Look into the matter.—S.B."
This singular communication served fully to arouse Sheard, and, refreshed by his bath, he sat down to a late breakfast. Propping the letter against the coffee-pot, he read and re-read every line of the small, neat, and oddly square writing.
The more he reflected upon it the more puzzled he grew. It was a link with the fantastic happenings of the night, and, as such, not wholly welcome.
Why Severac Bablon desired him to inspect the famous Jesson collection he could not imagine; and that part of his instructions: "Decide to accept a cheque," seemed to presume somewhat generously upon Sheard's persuasive eloquence. The re-opening of the closed ward was a good and worthy object, and the sum of ten, or even twenty thousand pounds, one which Sir Leopold Jesson well could afford. But he did not remember to have heard that the salving of derelict hospitals was one of Sir Leopold's hobbies.
Moreover, he considered the whole thing a piece of presumption upon the part of his extraordinary acquaintance. Why should he run about London at the behest of Severac Bablon?
"Eleven-thirty results!" came the sing-song of a newsboy. And Sheard slipped his hand in his pocket for a coin. As he did so, the boy paused directly outside the house.
"Robbery at the British Museum! Eleven-thirty!"
His heart gave a sudden leap, and he cast a covert glance towards his wife. She was deep in a new novel.
Without a word, Sheard went to the door, and walking down to the gate, bought a paper. The late news was very brief.
BRITISH MUSEUM MYSTERY
"An incredibly mysterious burglary was carried out last night at the British Museum. By some means at present unexplained the Head of Caesar has been removed from its pedestal and stolen, and the world-famous Hamilton Vase (valued at L30,000) is also missing. The burglar has left no trace behind him, but as we go to press the police report an important clue."
Sheard returned to the house.
Seated in his study with the newspaper and Severac Bablon's letter before him, he strove to arrange his ideas in order, to settle upon a plan of action—to understand.
That the "important clue" would lead to the apprehension of the real culprit he did not believe for a moment. Severac Bablon, unless Sheard were greatly mistaken, stood beyond the reach of the police measures. But what was the meaning of this crass misuse of his mysterious power? How could it be reconciled with his assurances of the previous night? Finally, what was the meaning of his letter?
He wished him to interview Sir Leopold Jesson, for some obscure reason. So much was evident. But by what right did he impose that task upon him? Sheard was nonplussed, and had all but decided not to go, when the closing lines of the letter again caught his eye. "Although Brugsch's book is elementary, there is something more behind it——"
A sudden idea came into his head, an unpleasant idea, and with it, a memory.
His visitor of the night before had brought a mysterious bag (which Sheard first had observed in his hand as they fled from the Museum) into the house with him. It was evidently heavy; but to questions regarding it he had shaken his head, smilingly replying that he would know in good time why it called for such special attention. He remembered, too, that the midnight caller carried it when he departed, for he had rested it upon the gravel path whilst bidding him good-night.
Frowning uneasily, he stepped to the bookcase.
It was a very deep one, occupying a recess. With nervous haste he removed "Egypt Under the Pharaohs," and his painful suspicion became a certainty.
Why, he had asked himself, should he run about London at the behest of Severac Bablon? And here was the answer.
Placed between the books and the wall at the back, and seeming to frown upon him through the gap, was the stolen Head of Caesar!
Sheard hastily replaced the volume, and with fingers that were none too steady filled and lighted his pipe.
His reflections brought him little solace. He was in the toils. The intervening hours with their divers happenings passed all but unnoticed. That day had space for but one event, and its coming overshadowed all others. The hour came, then, all too soon, and punctually at four-thirty Sheard presented himself in Hamilton Place.
Sir Leopold Jesson's collection of china and pottery is one of the three finest in Europe, and Sheard, under happier auspices, would have enjoyed examining it. Ralph Crofter, the popular black-and-white artist who accompanied him, was lost in admiration of the pure lines and exquisite colouring of the old Chinese ware in particular.
"This piece would be hard to replace, Sir Leopold?" he said, resting his hand upon a magnificent jar of delicate rose tint, that seemed to blush in the soft light.
The owner nodded complacently. He was a small man, sparely built, and had contracted, during forty years' labour in the money market, a pronounced stoop. His neat moustache was wonderfully black, blacker than Nature had designed it, and the entire absence of hair upon his high, gleaming crown enabled the craniologist to detect, without difficulty, Sir Leopold's abnormal aptitude for finance.
"Two thousand would not buy it, sir!" he answered.
Crofton whistled softly and then passed along the room.
"This is very beautiful!" he said suddenly, and bent over a small vase with figures in relief. "The design and sculpture are amazingly fine!"
"That piece," replied Sir Leopold, clearing his throat, "is almost unique. There is only one other example known—the Hamilton Vase!"
"The stolen one?"
"Yes. They are of the same period, and both from the Barberini Palace."
"Of course you have read the latest particulars of that extraordinary affair? What do you make of it?"
Jesson shrugged his shoulders.
"The vase is known to every connoisseur in Europe," he said. "No one dare buy it—though," he added smiling, "many would like to!"
Sheard coughed uneasily. He had a task to perform.
"Your collection represents a huge fortune, Sir Leopold," he said.
"Say four hundred thousand pounds!" answered the collector comfortably.
"A large sum. Think of the thousands whom that amount would make happy!"
Having broken the ice, Sheard found his enforced task not altogether distasteful. It seemed wrong to him, unjust, and in strict disaccordance with the views of the Gleaner, that these thousands should be locked up for one man's pleasure, while starvation levied its toll upon the many. Moreover, he nurtured a temperamental distaste for the whole Semitic race—a Western resentment of that insidious Eastern power.
Crofter looked surprised, and clearly thought his friend's remark in rather bad taste. Sir Leopold faced round abruptly, and a hard look crept into his small bright eyes.
"Mr. Sheard," he said harshly. "I began life as a pauper. What I have, I have worked for."
"You have enjoyed excellent health."
"I admit it."
"Had you, in those days of early poverty, been smitten down with sickness, of what use to you would your admittedly fine commercial capacity have been? You would then, only too gladly, have availed yourself of such an institution as the Sladen Hospital, for instance."
Sir Leopold started.
"What have you to do with the Sladen Hospital?"
"Nothing. It has accomplished great work in the past."
"Do you know anything of this?"
Jesson's manner became truculent. He pulled some papers from his pocket, and selecting a plain correspondence card, handed it to Sheard.
The card bore no address, being headed simply: "Final appeal." It read:
"Your cheque toward the re-opening of the Out-Patient's Wing of Sladen Hospital has not been forwarded."
Sheard failed to recognise the writing, and handed the card back, shaking his head.
"Oh!" said Jesson suspiciously; "because I've had three of these anonymous applications—and they don't come from the hospital authorities."
"Why not comply?" asked Sheard. "Let me announce in the Gleaner that you have generously subscribed ten thousand pounds."
"What!" rapped Sir Leopold. "Do you take me for a fool?" He glared angrily. "Before we go any farther, sir—is this touting business the real object of your visit?"
The pressman flushed. His conduct, he knew well, was irreconcilable with good form; but Jesson's tone had become grossly offensive. Something about the man repelled Sheard's naturally generous instincts, and no shade of compunction remained. A score of times, during the past quarter of an hour, he had all but determined to throw up this unsavoury affair and to let Severac Bablon do with him as he would. Now, he stifled all scruples and was glad that the task had been required of him. He would shirk no more, but would go through with the part allotted him in this strange comedy, lead him where it might.
"Yes, and no!" he answered evasively. "Really I have come to ask you for something—the mahogany case which is in your smaller Etruscan urn!"
Jesson stared; first at Sheard, and then, significantly, at Crofter.
"I begin to suspect that you have lunched unwisely!" he sneered.
Sheard repressed a hot retort, and Crofter, to cover the embarrassment which he felt at this seeming contretemps, hummed softly and instituted a painstaking search for the vessel referred to. He experienced little difficulty in finding it, for it was one of two huge urns standing upon ebony pedestals.
"The smaller, you say?" he called with affected cheeriness.
Sheard nodded. It was a crucial moment. Did the pot contain anything? If not, he had made a fool of himself. And if it did, in what way could its contents assist him in his campaign of extortion?
The artist, standing on tiptoe, reached into the urn—and produced a mahogany case, such as is used for packing silver ware.
"What's that?" rapped Jesson excitedly. "I know nothing of it!"
"You might open it, Crofter!" directed Sheard with enforced calm.
Crofter did so—and revealed, in a nest of black velvet, a small piece of exquisite pottery.
A passage hitherto obscure in Severac Bablon's letter instantly explained itself in Sheard's mind. "I did not further weary you with a discourse upon Egyptology; moreover, I had a matter of urgency to attend to!"
Sir Leopold Jesson took one step forward, and then, with staring eyes, and face unusually pale, turned on the journalist.
"The Hamilton Vase! You villain!"
"Sir Leopold!" cried Sheard with sudden asperity, "be good enough to moderate your language! If you can offer any explanation of how this vase, stolen only last night from the national collection, comes to be concealed in your house, I shall be interested to hear it!"
Jesson looked at Crofter, who still held the case in his hands; the artist's face expressed nothing but blank amazement. He looked at Sheard, who met his eyes calmly.
"There is roguery here!" he said. "I don't know if there are two of you——"
"Sir Leopold Jesson!" cried Crofter angrily, "you have said more than enough! Your hobby has become a mania, sir! How you obtained possession of the vase I do not know, nor do I know how my friend has traced the theft to you; least of all how this scandal is to be hushed up. But have the decency to admit facts! There is no defence, absolutely!"
"What do you want?" said Jesson tersely. "This is a cunning trap—and I've fallen right into it!"
"You have!" said Crofter grimly. "I must congratulate my friend on a very smart piece of detective work!"
"What do you want?" repeated Jesson, moistening his dry lips.
His quick mind had been at work since the stolen vase was discovered in his possession, and although he knew himself the victim of an amazing plot, he also recognised that rebellion was out of the question. As Crofter had said, there was no defence.
"Suppose," suggested Sheard, "you authorise the announcement in the Gleaner to which I have already referred? I, for my part, will undertake to return the vase to the proper authorities and to keep your name out of the matter entirely. Would you agree to keep silent, Crofter?"
"Can you manage what you propose?"
"I can!" answered Sheard, confidently.
"All right!" said Crofter slowly. "It's connivance, but in a good cause!"
"I shall make the cheque payable to the hospital!" said Jesson, significantly.
Sheard stared for a moment, then, as the insinuation came home to his mind: "How dare you!" he cried hotly. "Do you take us for thieves?"
"I hardly know what to take you for," replied the other. "Your proceedings are unique."
A MYSTIC HAND
"It amounts," said J. J. Oppner, the lord of Wall Street, "to a panic. No man of money is safe. I ain't boilin' over with confidence in Scotland Yard, and I've got some Agency boys here in London with me."
"A panic, eh?" grunted Baron Hague, Teutonically. "So you vear this Bablon, eh?"
"A bit we do," drawled Oppner, "and then some. After that a whole lot, and we're well scared. He held me up at my Canadian mills for a pile; but I've got wise to him, and if he crowds me again he's a full-blown genius."
Mrs. Rohscheimer's dinner party murmured sympathetically.
"Of course you have heard, Baron," said the hostess, "that in his outrage here—here, in Park Lane!—he was assisted by no fewer than thirty accomplices?"
"Dirty aggomblices, eh? Dirty?"
"Dirty's the word!" growled Mr. Oppner.
"The wonder is," said Sir Richard Haredale, "that a rogue with so many assistants has not been betrayed."
To those present at the Rohscheimer board this subject, indeed, was one of quite extraordinary interest, in view of the fact that it was only a few days since the affair of the dramatic ball. Sixteen diners there were, and in order to appreciate the electric atmosphere which prevailed in the airy salon, let us survey the board. Reading from left to right, as in the case of society wedding groups, the diners were:
Mrs. Julius Rohscheimer. Baron Hague. Miss Zoe Oppner. Sir Richard Haredale. Mrs. Maurice Hohsmann. Mr. J. J. Oppner. Mrs. Wellington Lacey. Mr. Sheard (Press). Miss Salome Hohsmann. Sir Leopold Jesson. Lady Vignoles. Mr. Julius Rohscheimer. Lady Mary Evershed. Lord Vignoles. Miss Charlotte Hohsmann. Mr. Antony Elschild.
[Footnote 1: Representatives of capital.]
"I understand that the man holds private keys to the British Museum!" cried Mrs. Hohsmann.
"Nobody would be surprised to hear," came the thick voice of Julius Rohscheimer, "that he'd got a private subway between his bedroom and the Bank of England!"
Extravagant though this may appear, it would not indeed, at this time, have surprised the world at large to learn anything—however amazing in an ordinary man—respecting Severac Bablon. The real facts of his most recent exploit were known only to a select few; but it was universal property how, at about half-past eleven one morning shortly after the theft from the British Museum, and whilst all London, together with a great part of the Empire, was discussing the incredibly mysterious robbery, a cab drove up to the main entrance of that institution, containing a District Messenger and a large box.
The box was consigned to the trustees of the Museum, and the boy, being questioned, described the consigner as "a very old gentleman, with long, white hair."
It contained, carefully and scientifically packed, the Hamilton Vase and the Head of Caesar!
Furthermore, it contained the following note:
"I beg to return, per messenger, the Head of Caesar and the Hamilton Vase. My reason for taking the liberty of borrowing them was that I desired to convince a wealthy friend that a rare curio is a powerful instrument for good, and that to allow of great wealth lying idle when thousands sicken and die in poverty is a misuse of a power conferred by Heaven.
"I trust that you will forgive my having unavoidably occasioned you so much anxiety.
The contents of the note were made public with the appearance of the 3.30 editions; nor was there a news-sheet of them all that failed to reprint, from the Gleaner, a paragraph announcing that Sir Leopold Jesson had made the magnificent donation of L10,000 to the Sladen Hospital. But the link that bound these items together was invisible to the eyes of the world. Two persons at Rohscheimer's table, however, were aware of all the facts; and although Sheard often glanced at Jesson, he studiously avoided meeting his eyes.
Severac Bablon's activities had not failed to react upon the temperature of the Stock Exchange. Loudly it was whispered that influential and highly-placed persons were concerned with him. No capitalist felt safe. No man trusted his staff, his solicitor, his broker. It was felt that minions of Severac Bablon were everywhere; that Severac Bablon was omnipresent.
"You've gone pretty deep into the case, Sheard," said Rohscheimer. "What do you know about these cards he sends to people he's goin' to rob?"
Sheard cleared his throat somewhat nervously. All eyes sought him.
"The authorities have established the fact," he replied, "that all those whom Severac Bablon has victimised have received—due warning."
Sir Leopold Jesson was watching him covertly.
"What do you mean by 'due warning'?" he snapped.
"They have been requested, anonymously," Sheard explained, "to subscribe to some worthy object. When they have failed voluntarily to comply they have been compelled, forcibly, to do so!"
Julius Rohscheimer began to turn purple. He spluttered furiously, ere gaining command of speech.
"Is this a free country?" came in a hoarse roar. "If a man ain't out buildin' hospitals for beggars does he have to be held up——"
He caught Mrs. Rohscheimer's glance, laden with entreaty.
"Good Lord!" he concluded, weakly. "Isn't it funny!"
Baron Hague was understood to growl that he should no longer feel safe until back to Berlin he had gone.
"I am told," said Mr. Antony Elschild, "that a new Severac Bablon outrage is anticipated by the authorities."
That loosed the flood-gates. A dozen voices were asking at once: "Have you received a card?"
It seemed that this was a matter which had lain at the back of each mind; that each had feared to broach; that each, now, was glad to discuss. An extraordinary and ominous circumstance, then, was now brought to light.
A note had been received by each of the capitalists present, stating that L1,000,000 was urgently needed by the British Government for the establishment of an aerial fleet. That was all. But the notes all bore a certain seal.
"How many of us"—Julius Rohscheimer's coarse voice rose above them all—"have got these notes?"
A moment's silence, wherein it became evident that five of the gentlemen present had received such communications. Mrs. Hohsmann stated that her husband had been the recipient of a note also.
"With Hohsmann," resumed Rohscheimer, "six of us."
"It appears to me," the soft voice was Antony Elschild's, "that no time should be lost in ascertaining how many of these notes have been sent——"
"Why?" asked Rohscheimer.
"Because, from what we know of Severac Bablon, it is evident that he intends to raise this sum, or a great part of it, for this highly patriotic purpose, amongst our particular set. One is naturally anxious to learn the amount of one's share in the responsibility!"
Baron Hague inquired, in stentorian but complicated English, whether he was to be expected to contribute towards the establishment of a British aerial fleet.
"You have British interests, Baron!" said Sheard, smiling.
"What about me?" said Mr. Oppner.
Replied his beautiful daughter, laughing:
"You've got Canadian interests, Pa!"
So the impending outrage—for all present felt that these notes presaged an outrage—was treated lightly enough, and the question, serious though it was felt to be, might well have given place to topics less exciting, when a buzz of conversation arose at the lower end of the table.
"Exactly the same," came Miss Salome Hohsmann's voice, "as the one father received!"
She was observed to be passing something to her neighbour—Mr. Sheard. He examined it curiously, and passed it on to Mrs. Lacey. Thus, from hand to hand it performed a circuit of the table and came to Julius Rohscheimer.
"That's one of 'em!" He threw it down upon the cloth—a small, square correspondence card. It bore the words:
"L1,000,000 is required by His Majesty's Government, immediately, in order to found an aerial service commensurate with Great Britain's urgent requirements. A fund for the purpose (under the patronage of the Marquess of Evershed and the Lord Mayor) has been opened by the Gleaner."
At the foot was a seal, designed in the form of two triangles crossed.
"Whose is this?" continued Rohscheimer, and turned the card over.
He read what was neatly type-written upon the other side, and his gross, empurpled face was seen to change, to assume a patchy greyness.
The superscription was:
"To Baron Hague, Sir Leopold Jesson, Messrs. Julius Rohscheimer, John Jacob Oppner, and Antony Elschild.
He clutched the arms of his chair, and stood up. A dead silence had fallen.
"Where"—Rohscheimer moistened his lips—"did this come from?"
A moment more of silence, then:
"Sir Leopold passed it to me," came Salome Hohsmann's frightened voice.
Rohscheimer stared at Jesson. Jesson turned and stared at Miss Hohsmann.
"You are mistaken," he replied slowly. "I have not had the card in my hand!"
Miss Hohsmann's fine, dark eyes grew round in wonder.
"But, Sir Leopold!" she cried. "I took it from your hand!"
Jesson's face was a study in perplexity.
"I can only say," contributed Sheard, who sat upon the other side of the girl, "that I saw Miss Hohsmann looking at the card and I asked to be allowed to examine it. I then passed it on to Mrs. Lacey. I may add"—smiling—"that it does not emanate from the Gleaner office, and is in no way official!"
"Mrs. Lacey passed it along to me," came Oppner's parched voice.
"But," Sir Leopold's incisive tones cut in upon the bewildering conversation, "Miss Hohsmann is in error in supposing that she received the card from me. I have not handled it—neither, I believe, has Lady Vignoles?" He turned to the latter.
She shook her head.
"No, sir," she said transatlantically, "I saw Mr. Rohscheimer take it from Mary" (Lady Mary Evershed).
"I mean to say, Sheila"—Lord Vignoles leant forward in his chair and looked along to his wife—"I mean to say, I had it from Miss Charlotte Hohsmann, on my left."
Rohscheimer's protruding eyes looked from face to face. Wonder was written upon every one.
"Where the——" Mrs. Rohscheimer coughed.
The great financier sat down. Let us conclude his sentence for him:
Where had the ominous "second notice" come from?
Amid a thrilling silence, the guests sought, each in his or her own fashion, for the solution to this truly amazing conundrum. The order may be seen from a glance at the foregoing list of guests. It has only to be remembered that they were seated around a large oval table and their relative positions become apparent.
"It appears to me," said Sir Leopold Jesson, "that the mystery has its root here. Miss Hohsmann is under the impression that I handed the card to her. I did not do so. Miss Hohsmann, as well as myself, has been victimised by this common enemy, so that"—he smiled dryly—"we cannot suspect her, and you cannot suspect me, of complicity. Was there any servant in the room at the time?"
A brief inquiry served to show that there had been no servant on that side of the room at the time.
"Did you pick it up from the table, dear," cried Mrs. Hohsmann, "or actually take it from—someone's hand?"
Amid a tense silence the girl replied:
THE SHADOW OF SEVERAC BABLON
The mystery of personality is one which eludes research along the most scientific lines. It is a species of animal magnetism as yet unclassified. Personality is not confined to the individual: it clings to his picture, his garments, his writing; it has the persistency of a civet perfume.
From this slip of cardboard lying upon Rohscheimer's famous oval table emanated rays—unseen, but cogent. The magnetic words "Severac Bablon" seemed to glow upon the walls, as of old those other words had glowed upon a Babylonian wall.
There were those present to whom the line "Who steals my purse steals trash" appealed, as the silliest ever written. And it was at the purses of these that the blow would be struck—id est, at the most vital and fonder part of their beings.
"That card"—Julius Rohscheimer moistened his lips—"can't have dropped from the ceiling!"
But he looked upward as he spoke; and it was evident that he credited Severac Bablon with the powers of an Indian fakir.
"It would appear," said Antony Elschild, "that a phantom hand appeared in our midst!"
The incident was eerie; a thousand times more so in that it was associated with Severac Bablon. Rohscheimer gave orders that the outer door was on no account to be opened, until the house had been thoroughly searched. He himself headed the search party—whilst Mrs. Rohscheimer remained with the guests.
All search proving futile, Rohscheimer returned and learnt that a new discovery had been made. He was met outside the dining-room door by Baron Hague.
"Rohscheimer!" cried the latter, "my name on that card, it is underlined in red ink!"
Rohscheimer's rejoinder was dramatic.
"The diamonds!" he whispered.
Indeed, this latest discovery was significant. Baron Hague had brought with him, for Rohscheimer's examination, a packet of rough diamonds. Rohscheimer had established his fortunes in South Africa; and, be it whispered, there were points of contact between his own early history and the history of the packet of diamonds which Hague carried to-night. In both records there were I.D.B. chapters.
The two men stared at each other—and sometimes glanced into the shadows of the corridor.
"He must be in league with the devil," continued Rohscheimer, "if he has got to know about those stones! But it certainly looks as though——"
"Where can I hide them from him—from this man who I hear cannot be kept out of anywhere?"
"Hague," said Rohscheimer, shakily, "you'd be safer at your hotel than here. He's held people up in my house once before!"
As may be divined, Rohscheimer's chiefest fear was that his name, his house, should be associated with another mysterious outrage. He knew Baron Hague to have about his person stones worth a small fortune, and he was all anxiety—first, to save them from Severac Bablon, the common enemy; second, if Baron Hague must be robbed, to arrange that he be robbed somewhere else!
"I have not ordered my gar until twelve o'clock," said the Baron.
"Mine can be got ready in——"
"I won't wait! Gall me a gab!"
That proposal fell into line with Rohscheimer's personal views, and he wasted not a moment in making the necessary arrangements.
The library door opening, and Adeler, his private secretary, appearing, with a book under his arm, Mr. Rohscheimer called to him:
Adeler approached, deferentially. His pale, intellectual face was quite expressionless.
"If you're goin' downstairs, Adeler, tell someone to call a cab for the Baron: Heard nothing suspicious while you've been in the library, have you?"
"Nothing," said Adeler—bowed, and departed.
The two plutocrats rejoined the guests. Sir Leopold Jesson was standing in a corner engaged in an evidently interesting conversation with Salome Hohsmann.
"You positively saw the hand?"
"Positively!" the girl assured him. "It just slipped the card into mine as Mr. Sheard leaned over and asked me if my diamond aigrette had been traced—the one that was stolen from me here, in this house, by Severac Bablon."
Sheard was standing near.
"I saw you take the card, Miss Hohsmann!" he said; "though I was unable to see from whose hand you took it. Sir Leopold sat on your left, however, and there was no one else near at the time."
Sir Leopold Jesson stared hard at Sheard. Sheard stared back aggressively. There was that between them that cried out for open conflict. Yet open conflict was impossible!
"Now then, you two!" Rohscheimer's coarse voice broke in, "what's the good o' fightin' about it?"
But the atmosphere of uneasiness prevailed throughout the gilded salon. Mrs. Rohscheimer, clever hostess though admittedly she was, found herself hard put to it to keep up the spirits of her guests—or those of her guests whose names had appeared upon the mysterious "second notice."
Lady Mary Evershed and Sir Richard Haredale sat under a drooping palm behind a charming statuette representing Pandora in the familiar attitude with the casket.
"It was through that door, yonder," said Haredale, pointing, "that the masked man came."
"Yes," assented the girl. "I was over there—by the double doors."
"You were," replied Haredale; "I saw you first of all, when I looked up!"
A short silence fell, then:
"Do you know," said Lady Mary, "I cannot sympathise with any of the people who lost their property. They were all of them people who never gave a penny away in their lives! In fact, Mr. Rohscheimer's particular set are all dreadfully mean! When you come to think of it, isn't it funny how everybody visits here?"
When he came to think of it, Haredale did not find it amusing in the slightest degree. Julius Rohscheimer was an octopus whose tentacles were fastened upon the heart of society. Haredale was so closely in the coils that, short of handing in his papers, he had no alternative but to appear as Rohscheimer's social alter ego. Lord and Lady Vignoles were regular visitors to the house in Park Lane; and although the Marquess of Evershed did not actually visit there, he countenanced the appearance of his daughter, chaperoned by Mrs. Wellington Lacey, at the millionaire's palace. Moreover, Haredale knew why!
What a wondrous power is gold!
Haredale was watching the fleeting expressions which crossed Lady Mary's beautiful face as, with a little puzzled frown, she glanced about the room.
Baron Hague came to make his adieux. He was a man badly frightened. When finally he departed, Julius Rohscheimer conducted him downstairs.