Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
Sofia had never heard the name of Michael Lanyard. Neither did the firm style of Messrs. Secretan & Sypher, Solicitors, mean anything to her. Notwithstanding, she wasted more time than she knew trying to picture to herself a man who looked like Michael Lanyard sounded, and wishing (no matter what his looks might be) that she were his long-lost daughter Sofia, and that he would see the advertisement, and communicate privately as requested, and hear news of her, and come speeding in a Rolls-Royce to the Cafe des Exiles, and walk in and humble Papa Dupont with a look of hauteur and confound Mama Therese with a peremptory word, and take Sofia by the hand and lead her out and induct her into such an environment as suited her rightful station: said environment necessarily comprising a town house if not on Park Lane at least nearly adjacent to it, and a country house sitting, in the mellowed beauty of its Seventeenth Century architecture, amid lordly acres of velvet lawn and private park.
She hoped the country house would be within sight of the sea, and that the family garage would run to a comfortable little town-car for her personal use when she went shopping in Bond Street, or to pay calls or leave cards, or to concerts and matinees....
At about this stage her chateaux en Espagne began to rock upon their foundations; a seismic phenomenon due to the appearance of Mama Therese and Papa Dupont, coming from zinc and kitchen for their dinner, which meal they habitually consumed in the cafe when the evening rush was over, the tables undressed, and the establishment had settled down to drowse away the dull hours till closing time.
Thus reminded that it was nine o'clock or thereabouts of a stuffy evening in a stodgy world where nothing ever happened that hadn't wearily happened the day before and the day before that and so back to the beginning of Time, and wasn't scheduled tediously to continue happening to-morrow and the day after and so on to the end of Eternity, Sofia sighed and shook herself and put away the vanity of dreams.
But her beauty, as she sat brooding, was as sultry as the night.
In the rear of the room Mama Therese and Papa Dupont wrangled sourly over their food; not with impassioned rancour but in the natural order of things--as others might discuss the book of the moment or the play of the year or scandal or Charlie Chaplin or the thundering fiasco of Versailles--these two discussed each other's failings with utmost candour and freedom of expression: handling their subjects without gloves; never hesitating to touch upon topics not commonly mentioned in civil intercourse or to use the apt, unprintable word; never dreaming of politely terming a damned old hoe a spade; tossing the ball of recrimination to and fro with masterly ease.
Their preoccupation with this pastime was so thoroughgoing that Mama Therese even failed to notice the passage of the postman on his last round of the day. Ordinarily, for reasons best known to herself and which Sofia had never thought to question, Mama Therese preferred personally to receive all letters and contrived to be on hand at the postman's customary hours of call. But to-night she only realized that he had come and gone when, happening to glance toward the caisse, she saw Sofia shuffling the half-dozen envelopes which had been left with her.
Immediately Mama Therese pushed back the table and got up, wiping chin and moustache with her napkin as she rolled toward the desk.
But she was too late. Already Sofia had sorted out and was staring in blank wonder at an envelope addressed to Mama Therese and bearing in its upper left-hand corner the imprint of its origin:
Secretan & Sypher Solicitors Lincoln's Inn Fields London, W.C. 3.
As yet she was simply startled by the coincidence, her brain had not had time to absorb its full significance--that Mama Therese should receive a communication from these distinctively named solicitors on the evening of the very day on which they advertised concerning a young woman named Sofia!--when the letter was snatched out of her hand, a torrent of objurgation was loosed upon her devoted head, and she looked into the black scowl of the Frenchwoman.
"Sneak! Spying little cat! How dare you pry into my letters?"
"But, Mama Therese--!"
"Be still, you! Has one asked you to speak? Give me those others"--Mama Therese with a vast show of violence appropriated them from Sofia's unresisting grasp--"and after this keep your nose of a mouchard out of what doesn't concern you!"
"But, Mama Therese!--"
"Hold your tongue. I wish to hear nothing from you, I hear too much--yes, and see too much, too! Oh, don't flatter yourself I am like that fat dolt of a Dupont, to be taken in by a pair of round eyes and innocent ways. I know your sort, I know you, mam'selle, too well! Me, I am nobody's fool, least of all yours, young woman. What goes on under my nose, I see; and if you imagine otherwise you are a bigger simpleton that you take me for."
She snapped her fingers viciously in Sofia's crimsoned face, uttered a contemptuous "Zut!" and waddled off, shaking her head and growling to herself.
Sofia felt stunned. The offensive had been launched so swiftly, she was conscious of having done so little to invite it, she had been taken unprepared, thrown into confusion, her feeble objections silenced and overwhelmed by that deluge of abuse, publicly disgraced....
Her face was burning, and tears started in her eyes; but she winked them back, she would not let them fall. Conscious of the grins of the handful of patrons, and the leers of the waiters, she steeled herself to suppress every betrayal of the mortification in which her soul was writhing, she made no sign but stared on stonily at the blackness of the night that peered in at the open doors.
Then indignation came to her rescue, the flaming colour ebbed from her face and left it unnaturally white, the mists before her eyes dissipated and their look grew fixed and hard, even her lips took on a grim, unyielding set. Beneath the desk her hands clenched into small fists. But she did not move.
The sensation stirred up by the outbreak of Mama Therese subsided, the domino players resumed their game, the old gentleman reading Le Rire turned a page and read on with a knowing smile, lovers returned to their low-voiced love-making, waiters yawned behind their hands, all was as it had been save that, at their table (Sofia could see by the mirror, without looking directly) Mama Therese and Papa Dupont seemed to have declared an armistice and were gobbling down the rest of their meal in silence and indecorous haste.
Presently they got up and sought their living quarters. To do this they had to pass the caisse and through the green baize door. Mama Therese marched ahead with forbidding frown and quivering chins, with the militant carriage of misprized and affronted rectitude. To her, it was obvious, Sofia for the time being did not exist. At her heels Papa Dupont shambled uneasily, hanging the head of deep thoughtfulness, avoiding Sofia's gaze. It was his part to pretend that all was well and always would be; only he lacked the effrontery, just then, for his usual smirk.
When they had disappeared Sofia began to think.
There was something more in this affair than mere coincidence, there was mystery, a sinister question.
Her countenance grew as dark as the complexion of her reverie. Athwart the field of her abstracted vision drifted the figure of young Mr. Karslake. She was barely conscious of it.
He seated himself with plain premeditation directly opposite the caisse, staring openly. But Sofia did not heed him at all. An odd smile shadowed his lips, an expression half eager, half apprehensive; there was a hint of puzzlement in his scrutiny. It was rather as if he had unexpectedly found some new reason for thinking the girl an exceptionally interesting personality. But she continued all unaware.
Shortly after being served with a drink which he ordered but made no offer to taste, he moved as if minded to rise and cross to Sofia, sat up and edged forward on the wall-seat with a singular air of timidity and embarrassment. But whatever his intention, he reconsidered and sat back, glancing round the room to see if anybody were watching him. He could not see that anybody was. Not even Sofia. Relieved, he settled back, found a handsome gold case in the waistcoat of his dinner jacket, extracted a cigarette, nipped it between his lips--and forgot to light it.
Of a sudden Sofia had arrived at a decision; and with every expression of it in her manner she slipped down from the high stool and left the caisse to take care of itself. Turning to the swing door she barged through with a high head and fire of determination illuminating her face. She had had enough of riddles.
Behind the zinc an elderly and trusted waiter was nodding. The kitchen was cold and dark for the night. Papa Dupont, then, would be upstairs, closeted with the genius of the establishment.
From the pantry a narrow staircase led up to the apartment above the restaurant. Sofia mounted rapidly, with a firm tread that was nevertheless practically noiseless, thanks to the paper-thin soles of well-worn slippers. She could hear voices bickering above.
At the top there was a short, dark corridor, with three doors. Two of these were closed on sleeping-rooms; the third door, to a sort of combination office and living-room, stood open, letting out a stream of light.
Sofia approached on tiptoe, though the altercation going on within had reached a stage so acute that it was doubtful whether either of the disputants would have heard had she stumped like a navvy.
The point of dissension was not at first apparent, because Mama Therese was speaking, and what she said had exclusively to do with her estimate of Dupont's character, the mettle of his spirit, the stuff of his mentality, the authenticity of his pedigree (with especial reference to the virtue of his maternal ancestry) and the circumstances of his upbringing; which estimate in sum was low but by no means so low as the terms in which Mama Therese was inspired to couch it.
Papa Dupont did not seem to be greatly interested. He had heard all this before, many a time, with insignificant phraseological variations. Sofia, pausing unseen and unsuspected in the darkness just outside the doorway, could see him slouching deep in his chair, to one side of the table, his soft fat hands deep in the pockets of his trousers, his chin sunken on his chest, something dogged in the louring frown which he was bending upon nothing, something of genuine indifference in his passive attitude toward the blowsy virago who was leaning across the table the better to spit vituperation at him.
And he waited with singular patience until she had to stop for want of breath. Then he shrugged and said heavily:
"Still, I don't see what else you propose to do, my old one."
Apparently his old one was as poor in expedient as he. "It is for nothing," she said, acidly, "that one looks to you!"
"I have said my say. If you have anything better to suggest...." He made a rhetorical pause for reply, but Mama Therese was well blown and sulky for the moment. "I am not old, not so old as you, and I have reason to believe the girl is not indifferent to my person."
"Drooling old pig," Mama Therese observed with reason: "if you dream she would trouble to look twice at you--!"
"That remains to be seen. And I, for one, fail to see how else we are to hold her. All this money that has been coming in, paid on the dot every quarter--that means there is more, much more to come to her. Are you ready to give it up?"
"Never!" Mama Therese thumped the table vehemently. "It is mine by rights, I have earned it. Look at the way I have slaved for her, the tender care I have lavished upon her, ever since she was a little one in my arms."
"By all means," Papa Dupont agreed, "look at it, but don't talk about it to her. She might not understand you. Also, do not depend upon her to endorse any claim you might set up based upon such assertions."
"She is an ungrateful baggage!"
"Possibly; but she is human, she has a memory--"
"Are you going to be sentimental about her again?" Mama Therese demanded. "Pitiful old goat!"
"But I am not in the least sentimental," Papa Dupont disclaimed. "It is rather I who am practical, you who are sentimental. I ask you: Is there any way we can hold on to that money unless I marry Sofia? You do not answer. Why? Because there is no other way. Then I am practical. But you will not admit that. And why? Because we have lived together for a number of years through force of habit, because once, very long ago, we were lovers, you and I--so long ago that you have forgotten you ever had a softer name for me than pig or goat. Who is the sentimentalist now--eh?"
"Shut your face!" Mama Therese growled. "You annoy me. I have a presentiment I shall one day murder you."
"You would have done that long ago," Papa Dupont pointed out, "if you had had the courage. Enough! I am silent. But when you are tired trying to think out another way, reflect on my solution. Meantime, let me have another look at that accursed letter."
Mama Therese did not respond, she offered no objection when Dupont took up the sheet of paper that lay between them, but ground the heels of her hands into her fat cheeks and sat glowering vindictively while he read aloud, slowly, with the labour of one to whom reading is unaccustomed dissipation:
Herewith we beg to enclose our cheque to your order in the sum of two hundred and fifty pounds, being the quarterly payment in advance due you from the estate of our deceased client, the Princess Sofia Vassilyevski, for your care of her daughter. We further beg to advise that, pursuant to the provisions of her will, we begin to-day, on the eighteenth birthday of the young Princess Sofia, a search for her father with the object of apprising him of his daughter's existence. Therefore we would request you to make arrangements to have the young Princess Sofia brought to England forthwith from the convent in France where we understand she is finishing her education. We take leave, however, to advise that, pending the outcome of our enquiries, the question of her father's existence be not discussed with the young princess. In event of his death being established or of failure to find him within six months, the Princess Sofia is to enter without more delay or formality into possession of her mother's estate.
Papa Dupont put down the letter. "It is plain enough," he expounded: "if this father is found, we can whistle for our money; whereas if I were married to Sofia, as her husband I would control--"
He broke off sharply, and added in consternation: "One million thunders!"
Sofia stood between them.
And yet she wasn't the Sofia they knew, but another person altogether, a transfigured and exalted Sofia, aflame with righteous wrath and contemptuous with the pride of birth which had leaped into full being a moment since.
A princess, born the daughter of a princess, now she knew and looked it.
All thought of fear or deference was gone, she had nothing left but scorn for these two despicable creatures, the fat harpy and her crapulent consort who had battened so long upon her misery, who had held her in bondage to the most menial tasks of their wretched restaurant while they filched and hoarded the money paid them for giving her the care and the advantages that were her due.
And something of this new-found dignity, to which her title was so unquestionable, which set her upon a level from which she could not but look down on these two paltry frauds, so abashed the Frenchwoman that the phrases of invective and vilification which gushed instinctively from the foul springs of her temper stuck in her throat, she couldn't utter them, and she well-nigh choked with impotent fury and fear as the girl spoke.
"You swindlers!" Sofia said, deliberately. "You poor cheats! To pocket a thousand pounds a year of my mother's money--and make me slave for you in your wretched cafe! And for eighteen years! For eighteen years you have been robbing me of every right I had in the world, robbing me of everything I've needed and longed and prayed for, everything you were paid to give me--while I drudged for you and endured your ill-temper and your abuse and the contamination of association with you!... Give me that letter."
She possessed herself of it unopposed. But now Mama Therese found her tongue.
"What--what do you mean?" she gasped, livid with fright. Was not a fortune slipping through her avaricious fingers? "What are you going to do?"
"Do?" Sofia cried. "I don't know, more than this: I'm not going to stay another hour under this roof, I'm going to leave to-night--now-- immediately! That's what I'm going to do!"
"Where are you going?"
The question halted Sofia in the doorway.
"To find my father--wherever he is!"
She left the two staring at each other, dumbfounded and aghast.
At the far end of the passage she flung open her bedchamber door, entered, turned up the light, and snatched her cloak and hat from pegs beneath the curtained shelf that held her scanty wardrobe.
Adjusting these before the mirror she could hear Therese bawling at Dupont to follow and stop her. Sofia had little fear he would find heart to attempt that, none the less she hurried. Once her hat was adjusted there was nothing to detain her; the best she had she stood in; no sentimental associations invested that room, the tomb of her defrauded childhood, the prison of her maltreated youth, to make her linger there, but only hateful ones to speed her going.
She turned and fled.
Stumbling on the stairs, she heard Therese still screaming imprecations and commands at Dupont, then the clumping of the man's feet as, yielding at length, he started in pursuit.
Through the green baize door she burst into the cafe like a young tornado. Every head turned her way with gaping mouths and protruding eyes of astonishment as she stopped at the caisse and brazenly, in the face of them all, plundered the till.
This was a matter of necessity. Sofia had not one shilling of her own. But those two had robbed her, what she took was not so much as a thousandth part of the money of which they had despoiled her. Moreover, she dared not go out penniless to face London.
Snatching a handful of loose coin, she made for the door. But the delay had been fatal. Dupont was now at her heels, and displaying extraordinary agility in a man of his years of dissipation and sedentary habits. And Therese was not far behind.
Seeing coins trickling through the fingers of the fugitive and falling to ring and spin upon the floor, the Frenchwoman raised an anguished shriek of "Thief! Stop thief!"--and such part of the audience as had remained in its seats rose up as one man.
In the same instant Dupont's fingers clamped down on Sofia's shoulder. She screamed, and he chuckled and dragged her back. Then his arm was struck up by a deft hand, the girl slipped from his hold and darted out through the doors.
Roaring with rage (now that his blood was up, his heart in the chase) Dupont turned upon the meddler. This was young Mr. Karslake. Dupont did not know him except by sight, but that slender, boyish figure and the semi-apologetic smile on Karslake's lips did not inspire respect. Blindly and with all his might Dupont swung his right to the other's head, only to find it wasn't there.
The weight of the unexpended blow carried Dupont off his feet. He fell in a heap, and Mama Therese, charging wildly after Sofia, tripped on his body and deposited fourteen stone of solid flesh squarely in the small of Dupont's back with a force that drove the breath out of him in one agonized blast.
Karslake laughed aloud: it was all as good as a cinema. Then he followed Sofia.
It was a dark and silent street by night, little used, a mere link between two main thoroughfares. Sofia, running for dear life, was still far from the nearest corner. Karslake doubled nimbly across the street to the only vehicle in sight, an impressive Rolls-Royce town-car. Jumping on the running-board he pointed out the fleeing shadow to the chauffeur.
"Lay alongside that young woman before she makes the corner, Albert!"
Without delay the car began to move.
Meanwhile, the Cafe des Exiles was erupting antic shapes, waiters, customers, Dupont, Therese. The quiet hour was made hideous by their yells.
"Stop thief!" "A la voleuse!" "L'arretez!" "A la voleuse!" "Stop thief!"
An entirely superfluous bobby weathered the corner, discovered Sofia in flight across the street, came about, and shaped a diagonal course to cut across her bows. She saw him coming and stopped short with a gasp of dismay. Simultaneously the Rolls-Royce slid smoothly in between them and Karslake hopped down. Sofia uttered a small cry, more of surprise than fright, and hung back, trying to free the arm by which he was trying to guide her to the open door.
"It's our only chance," he warned her, coolly. "We're between two fires. Better not delay!"
She yielded and tumbled in. Karslake followed and slammed the door. The car shot away and rounded into the cross street before the bobby could collect himself enough to look at its license plate. He made after it, but when he had reached the corner it had turned another and was lost.
At the second turning Karslake looked round from the window with a reassuring laugh, and settled back beside Sofia.
"So that ends that!"
She stared wide-eyed through the shadows. She knew him now, she was not in the least afraid, but she was confused beyond measure.
"Why--why--" she faltered--"what--who are you and where are you taking me?"
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" said the young man, contritely. "I forgot. One ought to introduce one's self before rescuing ladies in distress--but there really wasn't time, you know. If you'll overlook the informality, my name's Karslake, Roger Karslake, Princess Sofia, and I'm taking you to your father."