Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
III. The Agony Column
Sofia dated from that afternoon the first stirrings of a discontent which grew in her throughout the summer till everything related to her lot seemed abominable in her sight.
Even without this subjective inquietude it would have been an unpleasant summer. All the world was at sixes and sevens, the social unrest stirred up by the war showed no signs of subsiding, but indeed, quite the contrary, there was trouble in the very air--ominous portents of a storm whose dull, grim growling down the horizon could be heard only too clearly by those who did not wilfully close their ears, grin fatuous complacence, and bleat like brainless sheep: "All's well!"
High-spirited youth and witless wealth a-lust for strange new pleasures turned from the long strain of conflict to indulgence in endless orgies of extravagance like nothing ever witnessed by a world long since surfeited with contemplation of weird excesses: daily that wild dance of death attained wilder stages of saturnalia, the bands blaring ever louder to drown the mutter of savage elemental forces working underneath the crust.
And ever and anon a lull would fall and the world would shudder to the iteration of a word that spelled calamity to all things fair and sweet and lovable in life, the word Bolshevism....
In the Cafe des Exiles there was endless discord and strife.
For several reasons trade was not what it had been, even for the slack season of summer it was poor. The cost of everything had gone up, waiters were insubordinate and unreasonable in their demands, Mama Therese had been constrained to increase the fixed price of the dinner, old customers took umbrage at this and their patronage elsewhere.
Mama Therese cultivated a temper that grew day by day more vile, Papa Dupont displayed new artfulness in the matter of sneaking his daily toll of drink and showed it; the two squabbled incessantly.
One of the chefs, surmising the irregularity of their relations and foreseeing an imminent break, sought to turn it to his own profit by making amorous overtures to Mama Therese, who for reasons of her own, probably hoping to make Papa Dupont jealous, encouraged the idiot. And, as if this were not sickening enough, Papa Dupont, far from resenting this menace to the pseudo-peace of the menage, ignored if he did not welcome it, and daily displayed new tenderness for Sofia. He kept near her as constantly as he could, he would even interrupt a wrangle with Mama Therese to favour the girl with a languishing glance or a term of endearment; he was forever caressing her disgustingly with his eyes.
The swing door between the cafe and the pantry had warped on its hinges and would not stay quite shut. Normally it stuck in a position which permitted whoever was at the zinc an uninterrupted view of the desk of la dame du comptoir. Instead of having it fixed, Papa Dupont put off that duty from day to day and developed a fond attachment for the place at the zinc. For hours on end Sofia, on her high stool, would be conscious of his gloating regard, his glances that lingered on the sweet lines of her throat, the roundness of her pretty arms.
She dared make no sign to show that she knew and resented, to do so would be merely to draw upon herself the spite of Mama Therese.
But she simmered with indignation, and contemplated futile plans--especially in the long, empty hours of the afternoon, between luncheon and the hour of the apertifs--countless vain plans for abolishing these intolerable conditions.
She thought a great deal of the strange man who had talked with young Mr. Karslake, and wondered about him. Somehow she seemed unable to forget him; never before had any one she didn't know made such a lasting impression upon her imagination.
Sometimes she wasted time trying to explain to herself why the man had seemed, for that brief instant, to think he knew her, only to dismiss such speculations eventually with the assurance that she probably resembled in moderate degree somebody whom he had once known.
But mostly she was preoccupied with pondering the strangeness of it, that he who seemed so brilliant and brave a figure of the great world should, according to his own confession, have risen from beginnings as lowly as her own. All that he had suffered in the days of his youth, in that place in Paris which he called Troyon's, Sofia had suffered here and in large part continued to suffer without prospect of alleviation or hope of escape. And remembering what he had said, that his own trials had come to an end only when he awakened to the fact that he was, as he had put it, "less than half alive" there at Troyon's, and had simply "walked out into life," she was persuaded that the cure for her own discomfort and discontent would never be found in any other way. But she lacked courage to adventure it.
To say "walk out and make an end of it" was all very well; but assuming that she ever should muster up spirit enough to do it--what then? Which way should she turn, once she had passed out through the doors? What could she do? She had neither means nor friends, and she was much too thoroughly conversant with the common way of the world with a woman alone to imagine that, by taking her life in her own hands, she would accomplish much more than exchange the irk of the frying pan for the fury of the fire.
All the same, she knew that she must one day do it and chance the consequences. Things couldn't go on as they were.
And even granting that the outcome of any effort at self-assertion must be unhappy, she grew impatient.
Meanwhile, she did nothing, she sat quietly on her perch, looked with stony composure over the heads of the multitude, indifferent alike to admiration and the uncharitable esteem of her own sex, and waited with a burning heart.
Mr. Karslake ran true to form. He drifted in and out casually, always idle and degage and elegant, he continued his irregular conferences with ill-assorted companions, he worshipped discreetly and evidently without the faintest hope, he seemed more than ever a trifling and immaterial creature. Chance did not again lead him to the table where he had sat with the man whom Sofia could not forget, and only the memory of that conversation held any place for Karslake in the consideration of the girl.
Even at that she didn't consider him seriously, she looked for him and missed him when he didn't appear solely because of a secret hope that some day that other one would come back to meet him in the cafe.
Why she held fast to that hope Sofia could not have said.
Toward the middle of summer Mr. Karslake absented himself for several weeks, and when he showed up again his visits were fewer and more widely spaced.
On an afternoon late in August, a hot and weary day, he sauntered in with his habitual air of having in particular nothing to do and all the time there was to do it in, and found a man waiting for him.
This was a person whom Sofia had quite overlooked after one glance had classified and pigeon-holed him. A single glance had been enough. They do some things better in England; a man cast for any particular role in life, for example, is apt to conform himself, mentally, physically, and even as to his outer habiliments, so nicely to the mould that he is forever unmistakably what he is even to the most casual observer. So this man was a butler, he had been born and bred a butler, he lived by buttling, a butler he would die; not a pompous, turkeycock butler, such as the American stage will offer you when it takes up English fashionable life in a serious way, but a mild-mannered, decent body, with plain side-whiskers, chopped short on a line with the lobes of his ears, otherwise clean-shaven, his hair pathetically dyed, a colourless cast of countenance, eyes meek and mild.
He was soberly dressed in black coat and waistcoat, the latter showing a white triangle of hard-polished shirt and a black bow tie, with indefinite gray trousers and square-toed boots by no means new. His middle was crossed by a thick silver watch-chain, and curious, old-fashioned buttons of agate set in square frames of gold fastened his round stiff cuffs of yesterday. He carried a well-brushed bowler as unfashionable as unseasonable.
When Mr. Karslake entered, the polished pattern of a young gentleman of means, slenderly well set-up in an exquisitely tailored brown lounge suit, wearing a boater and carrying a slender malacca stick in one chamois-gloved hand, the butler stood up at his table, quietly acknowledged his greeting--"Ah, Nogam! you here already?"--and waited for the younger man to be seated before resuming his own chair: a stoop-shouldered symbol of self-respecting respectability, not too intelligent, subdued by definite and unresentful acceptance of "his place."
Their table was the one immediately beyond the buffet; and the cafe was very quiet, with only three other patrons, two of whom were playing chess while the third was reading an old issue of the Echo de Paris. So Sofia could, if she had cared to eavesdrop, have overheard everything that passed between Mr. Karslake and the man Nogam. But she didn't; their first few speeches failed to excite her curiosity in the least.
She heard Mr. Karslake, who was becomingly affable to one of inferior station, express the perfunctory hope that he hadn't kept Nogam waiting long, and Nogam reply to the simple effect of "Oh, not at all, sir." To this he added that he 'oped there had been no 'itch, he was most heager to be installed in his new situation, and would do his best to give satisfaction. Karslake replied airily that he was sure Nogam would do famously, and Nogam said "Thank you, sir." Then Karslake announced they must bustle along, because they were expected by some person unnamed, but just the same he meant to have a drink before he budged a foot. And he called a waiter and requested a whiskey and soda for himself and some beer for Nogam.... And Sofia turned her attention to other things.
The murmur of their talk meant nothing to her after that, and she forgot them entirely till they got up to leave, and then wasted only a moment in wondering why Mr. Karslake, if he were, as he seemed to be, engaging a butler for some friend or employer, should have arranged to meet the man in a cafe of Soho. But it didn't matter, and she dismissed the incident from her mind.
What did matter was that she was to-day more than ever galled by the deadly circumstances of her existence. If they were to continue to obtain, she felt, life would grow simply unendurable, and she would to do something reckless to get a little relief from the tedium and the ugliness of it all.
She was fed up with everything, the shrewishness of Mama Therese, the drunkenness of Papa Dupont, the hideous dullness of the cafe, the smell of food, the fumes of tobacco, the reek of wines.
She was fed up with the leers of Papa Dupont, the scowls of Mama Therese, the grimaces of waiters, the stares of customers, the very sight of herself in the mirror across the room.
She was fed up with being fed up, she wanted to do something lunatic, she wanted to kick and scream and drum on the floor with her heels.
And all the while, beyond the threshold, life in the street was flowing by, a restless stream, and the voice of it was a siren call to her hungry heart, whispering of freedom, laughing low of love, roaring robustly of brave adventures.
And she sat there with folded hands, mutinous yet impotent, afraid, a useless thing with sullen eyes ... wasted ...
As was her custom, between six and seven, before the busy hours of the evening, she had her dinner fetched to a table near by.
Somebody had left a copy of a morning paper on the wall-seat. Sofia glanced through it without much interest. None the less, when she had finished, she took the sheet back to the caisse with her and intermittently, as occasion offered, read snatches of it quite openly, so bored that she didn't care if Mama Therese did catch her at this forbidden practice; a good row would be almost welcome ... anything to break the monotony....
When she had digested without edification every item of news, she devoured the advertisements of the shops, then turned to the Agony Column, which she had saved up for a savoury.
She read the appeal of the widow of the English army officer who wanted some kind-hearted and soft-headed person to finance her in setting up an establishment for "paying guests."
She read the card of the young gentleman of good family but impoverished means who admitted that he had every grace and talent heart could desire and who, in frantic effort to escape going to work for his living, threw himself bodily upon the generosity of an unknown, and as yet non-existent, benefactor, hinting darkly at suicide if nothing came of this last attempt to get himself luxuriously maintained in indolence.
She read the advertisements of money-lenders who yearned to advance fabulous sums to the nobility and gentry on their simple notes of hand.
She read the thinly disguised professional cards of lonely ladies whose unhappy lot could be mitigated only by congenial male companionship.
She read the ingenuous matrimonial bids.
She read the announcement of the lady of (deleted) title who was willing, for a substantial consideration, to introduce gentlefolk of means and their daughters to the most exclusive social circles.
She read the naive solicitation of the alleged ex-officer of the B.E.F., who had won through the war with every known decoration except the Double Cross of the Order of St. Gall and with nothing of his anatomy left whole except his cheek, begging some great-hearted soul to buy him a barrel organ to play in the streets.
And then her eye was arrested by the appearance of her own name in the text of a brief advertisement, which she read naturally, with heightened interest:
IF MICHAEL LANYARD will communicate privately he will hear news of Sofia his daughter. Address Secretan & Sypher, Solicitors, Lincoln's Inn Fields, W.C. 3