Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
II. Masks and Faces
Quite naturally she became acquainted with Faces....
She grew adept at a game which consisted mostly in keeping close watch upon those who for this reason or that engaged her attention, without giving them the slightest reason to suspect she was doing anything of the sort.
One could not always be staring in abstraction at nothing in particular as it passed to and fro on the sidewalk in front of the Cafe des Exiles; one could not often or for long at a time succeed in reading a book held open in one's lap, below the level of the cashier's desk, Mama Therese was too brisk for that; one had to do something with one's mind; and it was sometimes diverting to watch and speculate about people who looked interesting.
There were so many Faces, they came and went so constantly, like bubbles in a tideway, that to Sofia most of them seemed indistinguishable one from another, mere blurs of flesh colour studded with staring eyes and slitted by apertures which automatically and alternately gaped to receive gobbets of food and goblets of drink and closed to gulp them down. A man needed to be remarkable for something in his looks, not necessarily pulchritude, or for uncommon individuality, for Sofia to favour him with more than one of her seemingly casual glances or to remember him if he visited the cafe a second time.
But those there were who stood out from the rank and file, for whom she watched, whom she missed if they failed to put in appearance at their accustomed hours, about whom her idle but able imagination wove wonderful fantasies, enduing them with histories and environments as far removed from fact as the drab dreams of the realists are from the picturesque commonplaces of everyday.
And there were others who came once and never again, but whom she never forgot. But for some of these last, indeed, she would never have remembered some of the former. The brown-eyed youngster with the sentimental expression and the funny little moustache, for example, lurked in the ruck a long time before the one and only visit of a bird of passage dignified him in the sight of the girl on the high stool.
On the occasion of his first appearance (but that was long ago, Sofia couldn't remember how long) the slender young man with the soulful eyes and the insignificant moustache had commended himself to her somewhat derisive attention by seeming uncommonly exquisite for that atmosphere.
The Cafe des Exiles was little haunted by the world of fashion; its diner a prix fixe (2/6), although excellent, surprisingly well done for the money, did not much seduce the clientele of the Carlton and the Ritz. Now and again its remoteness, promising freedom from embarrassing encounters save through unlikely mischance, would bring it the custom of a clandestine couple from the West End, who would for a time make it an almost daily rendezvous, meeting nervously, sitting if possible in the most shadowy corner, the farthest from the door, and holding hands when they mistakenly assumed that nobody was looking--until the affair languished or some contretemps frightened them away.
Aside from such visitations, however, the great world coldly passed the cafe by; although it couldn't complain for lack of patronage, and in fact prospered exceedingly if without ostentation on the half-crowns of loyal Soho and more fickle suburbia.
The Sohobohemian on its native heath and the City clerk on the loose, however, were not prone to such vestments as young Mr. Karslake affected. It wasn't that he overdressed; even the ribald would have hesitated to libel him with the name of a "nut"--which is Cockney for what the United States knows as a "fancy (or swell) dresser"; it was simply that he was always irreproachably turned out, whatever the form of dress he thought appropriate to the time of day; and that his wardrobe was so complete and varied that he seldom appeared twice in the same suit of clothes--except, of course, after nightfall; though his visits to the Cafe des Exiles for dinner or afterward were so infrequent that each attained (after Sofia began to notice him at all) the importance of an occasion. Luncheon was his time, and those empty hours at the end of the afternoon which London fills in with tea and Soho with drinks.
He seemed to have a very wide and catholic acquaintance among people of all ranks and stations in life; one could hardly call them friendships, for he lunched or sipped an aperti not often with the same person twice in a blue moon. And whether his companion were a curate or some ragged wastrel of the quarter; painted young person from the chorus of the newest revue or proper matron from Bayswater; keen adventurer from Fleet Street or solid merchant from the City, his attitude was much the same: easy, impersonal, unaffected, courteous, detached. He was as apt as not (going on his facial expression) to be mooning about Sofia when his guest was gesticulating wildly and uttering three hundred words a minute. When he spoke it was modestly, in a voice of agreeable cadences but pitched so low that Sofia never but twice heard anything he said; and his manner was not characterized by brisk decision. All the same, one noticed that he had, as a rule, the last word, that what he said left his hearer either satisfied or pensive.
He was unmistakably silly about Sofia; though that didn't impress her, too many of the regulars were just as hard hit, one more or less didn't count. But he never stared to the point of rudeness, and it always seemed to make him hugely uncomfortable if she appeared in the least aware of his adoration; and Mama Therese and Papa Dupont never even noticed him, so circumspect was he. Still, Sofia saw, and sometimes wondered, just as she wondered now and then about most of the possible men who seemed disposed to be sentimental about her.
For there were times when she felt she could do with a little more first-hand experience and a little less second-hand knowledge.
Love (she supposed) must be a very agreeable frame of mind to be in, it was so generally vogue....
What first led her to think that Mr. Karslake might be an interesting person to know, entirely aside from his admiration, happened on an afternoon in June, a warm day for England, when a temperature of some 81 degrees was responsible for "heat-wave" broadsides issued by the evening papers.
At about tea time, Mr. Karslake, faultlessly arrayed, ambled in, selected a table diagonally across the room from the caisse, exchanged pleasantries with the waiter who served him a picon, and used a copy of The Evening Standard & St. James's Gazette as a cover for his wistful admiration of Sofia.
Presently he was joined by a gentleman twice his age, if not older, whose conservative smartness was such that one wondered if he hadn't strayed out of bounds through inadvertence. One would have thought his place was in the clubs of Piccadilly if not (at that particular hour) at a tea table on the river terrace of the Houses of Parliament. On the other hand, there wasn't a trace of self-importance in his habit, it achieved distinction solely through the unpretending dignity of a decent self-esteem.
Sofia tried to fix what it was that made her think him the handsomest man she had ever seen. She failed. He wasn't at all handsome in the smug fashion associated with the popular interpretation of that term; his features were engagingly irregular of conformation, but the impression they conveyed was of a singular strength together with as rare a fineness of spirit. A mobile and expressive face, stamped with a history of strange ordeals; but this must not be interpreted as meaning that it was haggard or prematurely aged; on the contrary, it had youthful colour and was but lightly scored with wrinkles, its sole confession of advancing years was in the gray at either temple. The eyes, perhaps, told more than anything else of trials endured and memories that would never rest.
Once they had looked into hers (but that came later) Sofia was sure she would never forget those eyes. And as she saw them then, she never did forget them. But the next time she saw them she did not know them at all.
The newcomer hailed Mr. Karslake by his name (which was the first time Sofia had heard it), sat down on the wall-seat beside him and, when the waiter came, desired an absinthe.
He had used two languages already, English to Karslake, French to the waiter; Sofia understood both and spoke them to perfection. So it was rather exasperating when, his absinthe having been served and the customary platitudes passed on the weather and their respective states of health, the conversation was continued in a tongue with which Sofia was not only unacquainted but which sounded like none she had ever heard spoken. This seemed the more annoying because there were few people in the restaurant to drown with chatter the sound of those two voices and because, in spite of their guarded tones, their table was one so situated that some freak of acoustics carried every syllable uttered at it, even though whispered, to the quick ears at the cashier's desk. A circumstance which had treated Sofia to many a moment of covert entertainment and not a few that threatened to shatter what slender illusions had survived eighteen years of Mama Therese. But nobody else (with the possible exception of the last) was acquainted with this secret of the restaurant, and Sofia was careful never to mention it.
Now it so happened that Mr. Karslake had never before sat at that particular table.
The language spoken at it to-day intrigued Sofia extravagantly. It was rich in labials, gutturals, and odd sibilances. She was positive it was not a European tongue, though she thought it might possibly be Russian, because it sounded rather like Russian print looks; it might just as well have been Arabic or Choctaw, for all Sofia could say to the contrary. But his fluent ease in it impressed her with the notion that young Mr. Karslake might not, after all, be as negligible a person as he looked and as she indifferently had assumed.
She determined to study him more attentively.
It was rather a long confabulation, too, and one that both men seemed to take very seriously--though its upshot was apparently quite acceptable to both--and terminated abruptly with Mr. Karslake announcing, in English, with every evidence of satisfaction:
"Good! Then that's settled."
To this the older man dissented tolerantly.
"Pardon: nothing is settled; it is proposed, merely."
"Well," said Karslake with a little laugh that to Sofia sounded empty, "at all events it ought to be amusing."
The other lifted one eyebrow and smiled remotely.
"You think so?"
"To be ordering you about, sir? I should say so!" But his companion wasn't listening or chose purposely to ignore that accent of respect.
"You are right, my friend," he said, abstractedly: "it will be amusing. But what in life is not? I fancy that is why most of us go on, because we find the play entertaining in spite of ourselves. And even when we think of Death ... there's the possibility that on the other side of the curtain, where the unseen audience sits, whose hisses and applause we never hear ... over there it may be more entertaining still!"
Karslake was inquisitively watching his face.
"You would say that," he commented, deference and admiration in his voice. "By all accounts you've had a most amusing life."
"I have found it so." The other nodded with glimmering eyes. "Not always at the time, of course. But when I look back, especially at my beginnings, at the times that seemed hardest and most intolerable ..."
He was thoughtful for a moment, glancing interestedly round the room.
"It takes one back."
"This cafe, my friend."
"To your beginnings, you mean?"
"Yes. It is very like the cafe at Troyon's, at this hour especially, when there are so few English about."
"A restaurant in Paris. Famous in its day. Several years ago--before the war--it burned down one night, cremating many memories. While it stood I hated it, now I miss it; Paris without it is no more the Paris that I knew."
"Why did you hate it, sir?"
"Because I suffered there."
He indicated a weedy young Alsatian across the room, a depressed and pimply creature in a waiter's jacket and apron, who was shambling from table to table and collecting used glasses and saucers.
"You see that omnibus yonder? What he is to-day, that was I in mine--omnibus, scullion, valet-de-chambre, butt and scapegoat-in-general to the establishment, scavenger of food that no one else would eat.... I suffered there, at Troyon's."
"You, sir?" Karslake exclaimed in astonishment. "Whoever would have thought that you ... How did you escape?"
"It occurred to me, one day, I was less than half alive and never would be better while I stayed on in that servitude. So I walked out--into life."
"I wish you'd tell me, sir," Karslake ventured, eagerly.
"Some day, perhaps, when I get back. But now"--he looked at his watch--"I've got just time enough to taxi to my hotel, pack, and catch the boat train."
"Don't wait for me," Karslake suggested, signalling the waiter.
"Perhaps it would be as well if I didn't."
They shook hands, and the older man got up, secured his hat and stick, and started out toward the door, moving leisurely, still looking about him with the narrowed eyes and smile of reminiscence.
Of a sudden that look was abolished utterly. He had caught sight of Sofia.
Her interest had been so excited by the singular confidences she had overheard that the girl had quite forgotten herself and her professional pose of blank neutrality. She was bending forward a little, forearms resting on the desk, frankly staring.
The man's stride checked, his smile faded, his eyes grew wide and cloudy with bewilderment. For a moment Sofia thought him on the point of bowing, as one might on unexpectedly encountering an acquaintance after many years: there was that hint of impulse hindered by uncertainty. And in that moment the girl was conscious of a singular sensation of breathlessness, as if something impended whose issue might change all the courses of her life. A feeling quite insane and unaccountable, to be sure; and nothing came of it whatever. With a readiness so instant that the break in his walk must have been imperceptible to anybody but Sofia, the man recollected himself, composed his face, and proceeded to the door.
Confounded with inexplicable disappointment, Sofia sat unstirring.
In the open doorway the man turned and looked back, not at her, but at Karslake, as if of half a mind to return and say something more to the younger man. But he didn't.
He never came back.