Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
VI. The Mummer
Alone with his secretary, Prince Victor Vassilyevski dropped indifferently the guise of manner with which he had clothed himself for the benefit of the woman whom he claimed as his own child. That semblance of shy affection coloured by regrets for the past and modified by the native nobility of a prince in exile--so becoming in a parent to whose bosom a daughter whom he had never seen was suddenly restored--being of no more service for the present, was incontinently discarded. In its stead Victor favoured Karslake with a slow smile of understanding that broadened into an insuppressible grin of successful malice, a grimace of crude exultation through which peered out the impish savage mutinously imprisoned within a flimsy husk of modern manner.
Suspecting this self-betrayal, he erased the grin swiftly, but not so swiftly that Karslake failed to note it. And the young man, smiling amiably and respectfully in return, was sensible of a thrill: yet another glimpse had been given him into the mystery that slept behind that countenance normally so impenetrable.
But he was studious to show nothing of his own emotion. It was his part to be merely a mirror, to reflect rather than to feel, to be an instrument infinitely supple and unfailing, never an independent intelligence. Not otherwise could he count on holding his place in Victor's favour.
"You were quicker than I hoped."
"I had no trouble, sir," Karslake returned, cheerfully. "Things rather played into my hands."
Victor dropped into a chair beside the table and lifted the lid of a small golden casket. Helping himself to one of its store of cigarettes, he made Karslake free of the remainder with a gracious hand. The secretary demurred, producing his pocket case.
"If you don't mind, sir ..."
Victor moved a supercilious eyebrow. "Woodbines again?"
"Sorry, sir; I know they're pretty awful and all that, but they were all I could get in France, and I contracted a taste for them I can't seem to cure. I remember, while I lay in a hospital, hardly a whole bone in my body, thanks to the Boche and his flying circus--it was that lot sent me crashing, you know--the nurses used to tempt me with the finest Turkish; but somehow I couldn't go them; I'd beg for Woodbines."
Prince Victor dismissed the subject curtly. "I am waiting to hear about Sofia."
"Not much to tell, sir. There seemed to be a storm of sorts brewing when I got there. The young woman was at her desk with a face like a thundercloud. While I was trying to make up my mind what would be my best approach, she jumped down, flew upstairs and, I gathered, kicked up a holy row. You see, she'd seen that advertisement of Secretan & Sypher's, and smelt a rat."
"What did she say?"
"Nothing definite, sir: seemed to understand she was the daughter of Princess Sofia Vassilyevski, only she objected to her father being anybody but Michael Lanyard."
"After a bit she stampeded downstairs again, with the old girl and that swine of a Dupont at her heels. I blocked him and gave Sofia a chance to get outside. The whole establishment boiled out into the street after us, yelling like fun, but I got the girl into the car ... and here we are."
But Prince Victor seemed to have lost interest. The glow ebbing from his face, his lips tightening, the thick lids drooping low over his eyes, he sat in apparent abstraction, aping the impassivity of the graven idols that graced his study.
"I don't mind owning, sir," the younger man resumed, nervously, "she had me sparring for wind when she put it to me point-blank her father's name was Michael Lanyard."
Without moving Victor enquired in a dull voice: "What did you tell her?"
"That it was a name you had once used, sir, but.... Well, what you told her, all except the Lone Wolf business. Don't mind telling you I was in a rare funk till you capped my story so neatly."
He laughed and ventured with a hesitation quite boyish: "I say, Prince Victor--if it's not an impertinent question--was there any truth in that? I mean about your having been the Lone Wolf twenty years ago."
"Not a syllable," said Victor, dryly.
"Then your name never was Michael Lanyard?"
"Never, but ..."
During a long pause the secretary fidgeted inwardly but had the wisdom to refrain from showing further inquisitiveness. He could see that strong passions were working in Victor: a hand, extended upon the table, unclosed and closed with a peculiar clutching action; the muscles contracted round mouth and eyes, moulding the face into a cast of disquieting malevolence. The voice, when at length it resumed, was bitter.
"But Michael Lanyard was my enemy ... and is to-day.... He became a lover of Sofia's mother, he had a hand in overturning plans I had made, he humiliated, mocked me.... And to-day he is interfering again.... But ..."
Victor sank back in his chair. Suddenly that unholy grin of his flashed and faded.
"But now his impertinence fails, his insolence over-reaches itself. Now I have the whip-hand and ... I shall use it!"
Vindictiveness that could find relief only in action mastered the man.
"Be good enough to take this dictation."
Karslake turned to the table and opened a portfolio of illuminated Spanish leather.
"Ready, sir," he said, with pencil poised.
"To Michael Lanyard, Intelligence Division, the War Office, Whitehall. Sir: Your daughter Sofia is now with me. Permit me to suggest that, in consideration of this situation, you cease to meddle with my affairs. Your own intelligence must tell you nothing could be more fatal than an attempt to communicate with her."
"Sign on the typewriter with the initial V."
"Type it on plain paper, use a plain envelope, be sure that neither has a watermark, and get it off to-night without fail. Take a taxi to St. Pancras station and post it there. If you make haste you can get it in a pillar-box before the last collection."
"I shan't lose a minute, sir."
Karslake straightened up, folding the paper, and made for the door.
"One moment, Karslake.... This man, Nogam: where did you pick him up?"
"He used to buttle for my father, sir, but got into trouble--some domestic unpleasantness, I believe--needed money, and raised a cheque. The old boy let him off easy; but I've got the cheque, and Nogam knows it. The fellow's perfectly trained and absolutely dependable, knows his place and his duties and not another blessed thing. I'll send him in if you like."
Prince Victor uttered with dry accent: "Why?"
"Thought you might care to have a talk with him, sir."
"Oh!" Mr. Karslake exclaimed--"I didn't know."
"Quite so," commented Prince Victor. "I shan't need you again to-night, Karslake."
When the secretary had gone, Victor sat motionless, so still that his breathing scarcely stirred his body, with a face absolutely imperturbable, steadfastly gazing into that darkness which shrouded the workings of his mind.
On the doorstep a shrill whistle sounded: Nogam calling Karslake's taxi. Victor heard the vehicle roll in and stand panting at the curb, then the slam of its door, the diminishing rumble of its departure.
The house door closed, and after a little the study door opened, and Nogam halted on the threshold.
Unstirring Victor enquired: "What is it, Nogam?"
"I wished to enquire would there be anything more to-night, sir."
"'Nk you, sir."
"But Nogam: in this house, regardless of the custom which may have obtained in other establishments where you have served, you will always knock before entering a room, and never enter until you obtain permission."
"But if I'm sure the room is empty, sir, and get no answer--?"
"Then you may enter any room but this. Never this, unless I am here--or Mr. Karslake is--and you get leave."
"'Nk you, sir."
As the door closed Victor extended a thin, effeminate hand to a casket of ivory, searched with sensitive finger-tips its exquisite tracery until a cunningly hidden spring responded and the lid, splitting in two, sank down into its walls. In the pocket thus revealed were many pills, apparently hand-moulded, of a grayish-brown substance, putty-soft.
Slowly Victor selected three, placed one after another upon his tongue, and swallowed them.
He shut the casket and sat waiting.
Slowly the keenness of his countenance became blurred, as if the hand of an unseen sculptor were rubbing down its features, doing away the veneer with which Europe had overlaid the primitive Asiatic, which now showed on the surface, in every detail of coarsely modelled nose, oblique eyes of animal cunning, pendulous lips cruel and sensual.
By degrees a faint trace of colour began to flush Victor's cheeks, a smile modified the set of his mouth, the heavy-lidded eyes lost their lustreless opacity and glimmered with uncanny light.
He breathed deeply, evenly, with an evident relish. The action of the opium was visibly renewing his powers. His expression, softening, became terrible with brute tenderness and longing. Gazing into shadows in which he saw that which he wished ardently to see, he stretched forth his arms, and his lips moved, shaping a name:
As those syllables, freighted with that undying passion which consumed the man, sounded upon the stillness, Victor turned sharply, with a gesture of irritation, looking aside, listening.
Instantaneously the Asiatic disappeared, thrust back into its habitual latency within the prison of European: Prince Victor was as he had been, as always to the world, cool, composed, and crafty, master, never creature, of his emotions.
A faint buzzing was audible, broken by muffled clicks.
Rising, Victor approached a table in a corner and with a key from his pocket ring unlocked a heavy casket of bronze. As he raised its cover a small electric bulb illuminated the interior, focussing on the paper-covered face of a mechanical writing device, upon which a pencil with a broad flat lead operated by a metal arm was tracing characters resembling the hieroglyphics of the Chinese.
When the clicking ceased and the pencil was at rest, Victor caught an end of the paper and pulled it forward until a blank surface again occupied the writing-bed. Upon this with another pencil he inscribed a reply, then closed and relocked the casket.
Back at the table with the lamp, the message just received became crisp black ash on a brazen tray.
From a locked chest Victor produced an inverness and a soft hat of black felt. Wearing these he moved quietly out of the lamp's radius of light, and made himself one with the shadows that crowded one another round the walls. He did not leave by the hall door; but of a sudden the room was untenanted.