Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
V. House of the Wolf
This startling announcement Sofia received without comment and with a composure quite as surprising. The life which had made her what she was, a young woman singularly unillusioned, well-poised, and well-informed, had brought out in her nature a strong vein of scepticism. She was not easily to be impressed. The more remarkable the circumstance in question, the less inclined was she to exclaim about it, the stronger was her propensity to look shrewdly into the matter and find out for herself just what it was that made it seem so odd.
She didn't repose much faith in those striking synchronizations which apparently unrelated influences sometimes effect with related events, and which we are accustomed to term coincidences. She distrusted their specious seeming of spontaneity, she suspected a deep design behind them all.
For example: Up to the moment of her flight from the Cafe des Exiles there had been, as Sofia saw it, nothing extraordinary or inexplicable in the chapter of happenings which had made her acquainted, as abruptly as tardily, with certain facts concerning her parentage.
You might, if you felt like it, call it a strange coincidence that she should have read the advertisement of Messrs. Secretan & Sypher just before their letter was delivered and Mama Therese by her intemperate conduct warmed Sofia's simmering suspicions to the boiling point. But then Sofia read the Agony Column every time it came into her hands: she would have been more surprised had she missed noticing her given name in print, and downright ashamed of herself if she had failed to associate the letter with the advertisement.
If you asked her, she called it Fate, the foreordained workings of occult forces charged with dominion over human affairs. Sooner or later she must somehow have learned the truth about her right place in the world; and to her way of thinking it was no more astonishing that she should have learned it through accident supplemented by the acute inferences of a sharply stimulated imagination, rather than through being waited upon by a delegation of legal gentlemen commissioned with the duty of enlightening her. And the colossal set-piece of the evening having been duly exploded, no sequel whatever could expect anything better than relegation to the cheerless limbo of anticlimax.
Thus when young Mr. Karslake explained his uninvited if timely intervention by stating that he was conducting her to the parent of whose existence she had so recently been informed, he succeeded--not to put too fine a point upon it--only in making it all seem a bit thick.
So for the time being Sofia contented herself with silent study of his face as fitfully revealed by the passing lights of Shaftesbury Avenue.
A nice face (she thought) open and naive, perhaps a trace too much so; but, viewed at close quarters, by no means so child-like as she had thought it, and by no means wanting in evidences of quiet strength if one forgave the funny little moustache which (now one came to, observe it seriously) was precisely what lent that possibly deceptive look of innocence and inconsequence, positively weakening the character of what might otherwise have been a countenance to foster confidence.
As for Mr. Karslake, he endured this candid scrutiny with a faintly apprehensive smile, but volunteered nothing more; so that, when the silence in time acquired an accent of constraint, it was Sofia who had to break it, not Mr. Karslake.
"I'm wondering about you," she explained quite gravely.
"One fancied as much, Princess Sofia."
She liked his way of saying that; the title seemed to fall naturally from his lips, without a trace of irony. None the less, it wouldn't do to be too readily influenced in his favour.
"Do you really know my father?"
"Rather!" said Mr. Karslake. "You see, I'm his secretary."
"Upward of eighteen months now."
"And how long have you known I was his daughter?"
Mr. Karslake, consulting a wrist-watch, permitted himself a quiet smile.
"Thirty-eight minutes," he announced--"say, thirty-nine."
"But how did you find out--?"
"Your father called me up--can't say from where--said he'd just learned you were acting as cashier at the Cafe des Exiles, and would I be good enough to take you firmly by the hand and lead you home."
"And how did he learn--?"
"That he didn't say. 'Fraid you'll have to ask him, Princess Sofia."
Genuinely diverted by the cross-examination, he awaited with unruffled good humour the next question to be put by this amazingly collected and direct young person. But Sofia hesitated. She didn't want to be rude, and Karslake seemed to be telling a tolerably straight story; still, she couldn't altogether believe in him as yet. She couldn't help it if his visit to the restaurant had been a shade too opportune, his account of himself too confoundedly pat.
No: she wasn't in the least afraid. Even if she were being kidnapped, she wasn't afraid. She was so young, so absurdly confident in her ability to take care of herself. On the other hand, intuition kept admonishing her that in real life things simply didn't happen like this, so smoothly, so fortunately; somehow, somewhere, in this curious affair, something must be wrong.
"Please: what is my father's name?"
"Prince Victor Vassilyevski."
"You're sure it isn't Michael Lanyard?"
Now Mr. Karslake was genuinely startled and showed it. Sofia remarked that he eyed her uneasily.
"My sainted aunt! Where did you get hold of that name?"
"Isn't it my father's?"
"Ye-es," the young man admitted, reluctantly; at least with something strongly resembling reluctance. "But he doesn't use it any more."
Mr. Karslake was silent, thoughtful. Sofia felt that she had scored and with determination pressed her point.
"Do you mind telling me why he doesn't use that name, if it's his?"
"See here, Princess Sofia"--Karslake slewed round to face her squarely with his most earnest and persuasive manner--"I am merely Prince Victor's secretary, I'm not supposed to know all his secrets, and those I do know I'm supposed not to talk about. I'd much rather you put that question to Prince Victor yourself."
"I shall," Sofia announced with decision. "When am I to see him? To-night?"
"Of course. That is, I presume you will. I mean to say, Prince Victor wasn't at home when I left, but if I know him he's sure to be when we arrive. And I'm taking you there as directly as a motor can travel in this blessed town."
Sofia looked out of the window. The car, having turned down Regent Street from Piccadilly Circus, was now traversing sedate Pall Mall; and in another moment it swung into the passage between St. James's Palace and Marlborough House Chapel; and then they were in The Mall, with the Victoria Memorial ahead, glowing against the dingy backing of Buckingham Palace.
Now, since all Sofia's reading had inculcated the belief that the enterprising kidnapper always made off with his victim by way of dark bystreets and unsavoury neighbourhoods, she felt somewhat reassured.
"Have we very far to go?"
"We're almost there now--Queen Anne's Gate."
A good enough address. Though that proved nothing. There was still plenty of time, anything might happen....
Sofia shrugged, and settled back to await developments.
But there was nothing to warrant misgivings in the aspect of the dwelling before which the car presently drew up. If it wasn't the palace Sofia had unconsciously been looking forward to, it owned a solid, dull-faced dignity that suited well the town-house of a person of quality, it measured up quite acceptably to Sofia's notion of what was becoming to the condition of a prince in exile--who naturally would live quietly, in view of the recent revolution in Russia.
Without augmented fears, then, though still on the alert for anything that might seem questionable, and more agitated with excitement than she let him suspect, Sofia permitted Mr. Karslake to conduct her to the door.
He had barely touched the bell-button when this door opened, revealing a vista of spacious entrance-hall.
To one side stood a manservant to whom Sofia paid no attention till the sound of his name on Karslake's tongue struck an echo from her memory. "Thanks, Nogam. Prince Victor home yet?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Tell him, please, when he comes in, we're waiting in the study."
The servant was the man whom Karslake had met in the Cafe des Exiles only a few hours before. Catching Sofia's quick, questioning glance, Nogam paused at respectful attention. And, even then, she was struck again with his fidelity to the role in the social system for which Life had cast him. In the cafe, that afternoon, he had cut a mildly incongruous figure, unpretending but alien to that atmosphere; here, in the plain evening-dress livery of his station, he blended perfectly into the picture.
Karslake gave his hat and stick to the man, then opened one wing of a great double doorway, and with a bow invited Sofia to precede him. She faltered, hazily conceiving that threshold in the guise of an inglorious Rubicon. But she had already gone too far into this adventure to draw back now without forfeiting her self-respect. With a deceptively firm step she entered a room to wonder at.
Sombre shadows masked much of its magnificent proportions, but what Sofia could see suggested less the study of a man of everyday interests than the private museum of an Orientalist whose wealth knew no limits.
The air was warm and close, aromatic with the ghosts of ten thousand perished perfumes. The quiet, when Karslake had closed the door, was oppressive, as if some dark enchantment here had power to tame and silence the growl of London that was never elsewhere in all the city for an instant still.
On a great table of black teakwood inlaid with mother of pearl burned a solitary lamp, a curious affair in filigree of brass, furnishing what illumination there was. Its closely shaded rays made vaguely visible walls dark with books, tier upon tier climbing to the ceiling; chairs of odd shape, screens of glowing lacquer; tables and stands supporting caskets of burning cinnabar, of ivory, of gold, of kaleidoscopic cloisonne; trays heaped high with unset jewels; cabinets crowded with rare objects of Eastern art; squat shapes of neglected gods brandishing weird weapons; grotesque devil masks ferociously a-grin; chests of strange woods strangely fashioned, strangely carved, and decorated with inlays of precious metals, banded with huge straps of black iron, from which gushed in rainbow profusion silks and brocades stiff with barbaric embroideries in gold- and silver-thread and precious stones.
Confused by the impact upon her perceptions of so much that was unexpected and bizarre, the girl looked round with an uncertain smile, and found Karslake watching her with a manner of peculiar gravity and concern.
"Prince Victor is an extraordinary man," Karslake replied to her unspoken comment; "probably the most learned Orientalist alive. Sometimes I think the East has never had a secret he doesn't know."
He paused and drew nearer, with added earnestness in his regard.
"Princess Sofia," said he, diffidently, "if I may say something without meaning to seem disrespectful--"
Perplexed, she encouraged him with one word: "Please."
"I'm afraid," Karslake ventured, "you will have many strange experiences in this new life. Some of them, I fancy, you won't immediately understand, some things may seem wrong to you, you may find yourself confronted with conditions hard to accept ..."
He rested as if in doubt, and she fancied that he was listening intently, almost apprehensively, for some signal of warning. But on her part Sofia heard no sound.
Impressed and puzzled, she uttered a prompting "Yes?"
"I only want to say"--he employed a tone so low that she could barely hear him--"if you don't mind--whatever happens--I'd be awf'ly glad if you'd think of me as one who sincerely wants to be your friend."
"Why," she said in wonder--"thank you. I shall be glad--"
She checked in astonishment: a man was approaching from the general direction of the door by which they had entered.
The effect was uncanny, as if the figure had materialized before her very eyes, out of clear air, as if one of those many shadows had taken on shape and substance while she looked.
The man himself was nothing unusual in general aspect, of no remarkable stature, neither tall nor small, neither robust nor slender. His evening clothes were without fault, but as much might be said of ten thousand men who might be seen any night in the public rendezvous of leisured London. His carriage had special distinction only in that he moved with a sort of feline grace. Still, something elusive made him unlike any other man Sofia had ever met, something arresting and not altogether prepossessing.
As he drew nearer and his features became more clearly defined by the light, she was sensible of gazing into a face of unique cast. Of an odd grayish pallor accentuated by hair so black that it might have been painted on his skull with india-ink, the skin seemed to be as soft and smooth as a child's, beardless and wholly without lustre. The mouth was sensuous yet firm, with hard, full lips. Leaden pouches hung beneath heavy-lidded eyes set at a noticeable angle. The eyes themselves were as black as night and as lightless; the rays of the lamp struck no gleam from them; in spite of this they were compelling, masterful, and disconcerting.
Karslake at once fell back, with a bow so low it was little less than an obeisance.
The man nodded acknowledgment of this greeting without detaching attention from the girl. His voice, slightly tremulous with emotion, uttered her name: "Sofia?"
She collected herself with an effort. "I am Sofia," she replied almost mechanically.
"And I, your father ..."
Prince Victor lifted hands of singular delicacy, slender and tapering, whose long fingers were dressed with many curious rings.
A reluctance she could not understand hindered Sofia from going gladly into those arms. She had to make herself yield. They tightened hungrily about her. She closed her eyes and experienced a slight, invincible shudder.
The lips that touched her forehead astonished her with their warmth. Instinctively she had expected them to be cool, as frigid as the effect of that strange mask of which they formed a part.
Then, held at arm's-length, she submitted to an inspection whose sum was enunciated with a strange smile of gratification:
"You are beautiful."
In embarrassment she murmured: "I am glad you think so--father."
"As beautiful as your mother--in her time the most beautiful creature in the world--her image, a flawless reproduction, even to her colouring, the shade of the hair, the eyes--so like the sea!"
"I am glad," the girl repeated, nervously.
"And until to-night I did not know you lived!"
She mustered up courage enough to ask: "How--?"
The heavy lids drooped lower over the illegible eyes. "My attention was called to a newspaper advertisement signed by a firm of solicitors. I got in touch with them--a matter of some difficulty, since it was after business hours--and found out where to look for you. Then, prevented from acting as quickly as I wished, myself, I sent Karslake here to bring you to me."
"But, according to their letter, the solicitors thought I was in France, in a convent!"
"When they advertised for me--yes. But by the time I enquired they were better informed."
"But the advertisement was addressed to Michael Lanyard!"
The thin lips formed a faint smile. "That was once my name. I no longer use it."
Against a feeling that she was adopting an attitude both undutiful and unbecoming, Sofia persisted.
Prince Victor Vassilyevski gave a gesture of pain and reluctance.
"Must I tell you? Why not? You must know some day, as well now as later, perhaps. Twenty years ago the name of Michael Lanyard was famous throughout Europe--or shall I say infamous?--the name of the greatest thief of modern times, otherwise known as 'The Lone Wolf'."
Involuntarily, Sofia stepped back, as if some shape of horror had been suddenly thrust before her face.
"The Lone Wolf!" she echoed in a voice of dismay. "A thief! You!"
The man who called himself her father replied with a series of slow, affirmative nods.
"That startles you?" he said in an indulgent voice. "Naturally. But you will soon grow accustomed to the thought, you will condone that chapter in my history, remembering I am no longer that man, no longer a thief, that for many years now my record has been without reproach. You will remember that there is more joy in Heaven over the one sinner who repents ... You will forgive the father, if only for your mother's sake."
"For my mother's sake--?"
"What the Lone Wolf was in his day, your mother was in hers--the most brilliant adventuress Europe ever knew."
"Oh!" cried the girl in semi-hysterical protest. "Oh, no, no! Impossible!"
"I assure you, it is quite true. Some day I may tell you her history--and mine. For the present, you will do well to think no more about what I have confessed. Repining can never mend the past. It is to-day and to-morrow you must think of: that you are restored to me, and that I have not only the means but a great hunger to make you happy, to gratify your slightest whim."
"I want nothing!" Sofia insisted, wildly.
"You want sleep," Prince Victor corrected, fondly--"you want it badly. You are nervous, overstrung, in no condition to understand the great good fortune that has befallen you. But to-morrow you will see things in a rosier light."
Apparently he had manipulated some signal unremarked by Sofia. The door opened, framing the figure of the man Nogam. Without looking round, but with an inscrutable smile, Prince Victor took the girl in his arms again and held her close.
"You rang, sir?"
"Oh, are you there, Nogam? Is the apartment ready for the Princess Sofia?"
"Quite ready, sir."
"Be good enough to conduct her to it." Again Prince Victor kissed Sofia's forehead, then let her go. "Good-night, my child."
Moving slowly toward the door, drooping, Sofia made inarticulate response. She felt suddenly stupefied with fatigue. To think meant an effort that mocked her flagging powers. A vast lassitude was weighing upon her, body and spirit were faint in the enervation of an inexorable disconsolation.