Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
I. The Girl Sofia
She sat all day long--from noon, that is, till late at night--on a high stool behind the tall, pulpit-like desk of the caisse; flanked on one hand by the swing door of green baize which communicated with the kitchen, on the other by a hideous black walnut buffet on which fruits of the season were displayed, more or less temptingly, to the taste of Mama Therese.
But for these articles of furniture, the buffet, the desk, and the door to the kitchen quarters, uninterrupted rows of tables, square, with composition-marble tops, lined three walls of the room. The fourth was mainly plate-glass window, one on either side of the main entrance.
Back of the tables were wall-seats upholstered in red plush, dusty and threadbare; and, above, a frieze of mirrors. The floor of the restaurant was a patternless mosaic of small hexagonal tiles, bare in warm weather, in the winter covered by a thick but well-worn Brussels carpet of peculiarly repulsive design. The windows wore half-curtains of net which, after nightfall, were reinforced by ruffled draperies of rep silk. Through the net curtains, by day, the name of the restaurant was shadowed in reverse by plain white-enamel letters glued to the glass:
CAFE DES EXILES
The girl stared so constantly at these letters, during the off hours of the day, that she sometimes wondered if they were not indelibly stamped upon her brain, like this:
[Reverse: CAFE DES EXILES]
She gazed in the direction of the windows as a matter of habit, because Mama Therese objected to her reading at the desk (all the same, sometimes she did it on the sly) because the glimpses she caught, above the half-curtains, of heads of passersby gave her idle imagination something to play with, but mostly because it was difficult otherwise to seem unconscious of the stares that converged toward her from every table occupied by a masculine patron, whether regular or casual--unless the patron happened to be accompanied by a lady, in which unhappy event he had to content himself with furtive, sidelong glances, not always furtive enough by half.
The feminine patrons stared, too, but from quite another angle of view.
Sofia knew why. If she hadn't, the mirror across the room would have enlightened even a woman without vanity; which paradox this thoroughly human young person was not.
She was, indeed, healthily vain; and when she wasn't focussing dream-dark eyes upon the windows, or verifying additions and making change, she was as likely as not to be stealing consultations with the mirror opposite, making sure she hadn't, in the last few minutes, gone off in her looks. Not that her comeliness bade fair ever to prove the cause of any real excitement. Mama Therese made a first-rate dragon: she was very much on the job of discouraging enterprising young men, and this without respect for union hours or overtime. And when she wasn't functioning as the ubiquitous wet-blanket, Papa Dupont understudied for her, and did it most efficiently, too. If anything he was more vigilant and enthusiastic when it came to administering the snub sufficient than even Mama Therese; in Sofia's sight, indeed, he betrayed some personal feeling in the business; he seemed to consider alien admiration of his charge an encroachment upon his private prerogatives, to be resented accordingly.
Sofia understood. At eighteen--thanks to the comprehensive visual education in the business of life which she could hardly have failed to assimilate from a coign of vantage overlooking every table of a Soho restaurant--there were precious few things she didn't understand. But her insight into Papa Dupont's mind in respect of herself was wholly devoid of sympathy. She was just a little bit afraid of him, and she despised him without measure. And this contempt was founded on something more than his weakness for taking numerous and surreptitious nips (surreptitious, at least, until they became numerous) while presiding over the zinc in the pantry between the restaurant proper and the kitchen; and on something more than his reluctance to let Mama Therese make an honest man of him, although these two had squabbled openly for so many years that most of the house staff believed them to be married hard and fast enough.
For the matter of that, Sofia herself might have been the dupe of this popular delusion--which Mama Therese did her best to encourage by never referring to Dupont save as "mon mari"--had they been less imprudent in recriminations which had passed between them in private when Sofia was of an age so tender that she was presumed to be safely immature of mind. Whereas she had always been precocious, if rather a self-contained child. Almost from infancy she had been conversant with many things which she knew it wouldn't do to talk about.
Such sympathy as Sofia wasted on the couple was all for Mama Therese. What with keeping an eye on Papa Dupont that prevented his drinking himself to death seven times per calendar week, and an eye on Sofia that was fondly credited with being largely responsible for her failure to run away with each and every presentable man who ogled her, and browbeating the waiters and frustrating their attempts to cheat the house out of its fair dues, and supervising the marketing and the cuisine: believe it or not, Mama Therese led a tolerably busy life and deserved whatever gratification she got out of it, to say nothing of highest commendation for industry, fidelity, and frugality. But that did nothing to prevent Sofia from not liking her.
Her inability to play up to the relationship in which she stood to Mama Therese in the manner prescribed by sentimentalists worried Sofia more than a little. She was as hungry to give affection as to receive it; and surely she ought to be fond of Mama Therese, who (Sofia was forever being reminded) had in the goodness of her great heart adopted her as the orphaned offspring of a cousin far-removed, and had brought her up at her own expense, expecting no return (excepting humility, gratitude, unquestioning affection, and uncomplaining acceptance of a life of incessant toil at tasks uncongenial when not downright unsavoury, without spending money or hours of untrammelled liberty in which to spend it).
Surely such nobility ought to be requited with nothing less than love!
Nevertheless, the plain, and to Sofia disquieting, truth was: it wasn't.
She was fond of Mama Therese after a fashion. No one was ever more ready to acknowledge the woman's good qualities. But her faults, which included avarice, bad temper, gluttony, native cruelty of inclination, and simple inability to give a damn for anybody but herself, forbade satisfaction of Sofia's yearnings to give her affections freely through bestowing them upon the abundant and florid person of Mama Therese.
Still, she made no murmur. There was more than a trace of fatalism in the composition of her spirit. As she conceived it, in this life either things were or they were not; and as a rule they uncompromisingly were not: one couldn't have everything.
She was not happy, it would be stretching the truth to say she was content, but she was resigned, she was patient, she waited not altogether without confidence....
All the same, sometimes, as she sat, day in day out, on her high stool, looking down on familiar aspects of life's fermentation as it manifests in public restaurants, or peering out of the windows to catch tantalizing glimpses of its freer, ampler, and--alas!--more recondite phases--sometimes Sofia wondered whether there were not grimly cynic innuendo in those three words which the mystery of choice had affixed to the window-panes and graven so deep into her soul.
CAFE DES EXILES
For surely she was in exile there, an exile from all the fun and frolic and, fury of life, marooned in weary isolation, on a high stool, in a frowsty table d'hote, in the living heart of London.