Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
IX. Mrs. Waring
Late in the forenoon a pencil of golden light found a chink in jealously drawn draperies, and groped the rich dusk of the bedchamber till it came to rest, as if happy that its search had found so lovely a reward, upon the face of a young girl who lay sleeping in a bed whose exquisite adornment must have flattered even the exalted person of a princess.
With a swift but silent movement another girl, who had been sitting patiently on a low stool near by, rose and put herself in the way of the sunbeam. But too late: already long lashes were a-flutter upon the delicately modelled cheeks of the sleeper.
A gentle sigh brushed parting lips; the sweet body stirred luxuriously; unclouded by any shadow of misgiving, the blue eyes of the Princess Sofia looked out upon the first day of her new world.
Then they grew wide with wonder, comprehending the sleek, pretty face of a Chinese girl of about her own age who, with eyes downcast, demure mouth and folded hands, submissively awaited recognition.
"Who are you?" Sofia demanded in a breath.
A bob of courtesy, wholly charming, prefaced a reply pattered in English of quaintest accent:
"You' handmaiden--Chou Nu is my name."
"Les, Plincess Sofia."
"But I don't understand. How--when--?"
"Las' night Numbe' One he send for me, but when I come you go-sleep."
Surprise coloured faintly the explanation: "Plince Victo', honol'ble fathe' of Plincess Sofia. You like get up now, take bath, have blekfuss?"
The smile was irresistibly ingratiating: Sofia could not but return it. Delighted, Chou Nu ran to the windows, threw wide their draperies, and darted into the bathroom.
Autumnal sunlight kindled to burning beauty the golden-bronze tresses coiled upon the pillows where Sofia lay unstirring, like a princess enchanted--as indeed she was. Surely nothing less potent than magic had wrought this metamorphosis in the fabric of her life! And whether the magic were white or black--what matter? Its work was good.
No more the Cafe des Exiles, no more the deadly tedium of daily service at the desk of the caisse, no more the shrewish tongue of Mama Therese, the odious oglings of Papa Dupont, the ceaseless cark of discontent....
As one who moves in a dream, Sofia rose presently and bathed, then, robed in a ravishing negligee of rare brocade, breakfasted on melon, tea, and toast from a service of eggshell china.
In a long mirror she saw and watched but did not know herself. Like Goody Twoshoes of nursery fame she could have cried: Lawkamercy! this is never I!
The presence of Chou Nu served merely to stress the sense of unreality: for, obviously, only the heroine of a true fairy tale could have broken from a chrysalis stage of sordid Soho to the brilliant butterfly existence of a Russian princess domiciled in the most aristocratic quarter of London and attended by a Chinese maid!
And Chou Nu proved a delight. Once satisfied she need fear neither ill-temper nor arrogance from her new mistress, she indulged an even and constant flow of artless high spirits, her amusing, clipped English affording Sofia considerable entertainment together with not a little food for thought.
Thus one learned that the main body of the service staff was Chinese under a major domo named Shaik Tsin--Chou Nu's "second-uncle"--who enjoyed Prince Victor's completest confidence and was, second to the latter only, the real head of the establishment, its presiding genius. The front of the house alone was dressed with a handful of English servants nominally under the man Nogam, but actually, like him, answerable in the last instance to Shaik Tsin.
Why this should be Chou Nu couldn't say. Sofia supposed it was because Prince Victor thought his Occidental guests would feel more at ease with English servants; or perhaps he himself preferred them, when it came to the question of personal attendance.
No success rewarded efforts to extract from Chou Nu her reason for referring to Victor as "Number One." She stated simply that all Chinamans in London called him that; and being pressed further added, with as near an approach to impatience as her gentle nature could muster, that it was obviously because Plince Victo' was Numbe' One: ev'-body knew that.
A knock at the door interrupted Sofia's questioning. Answering, Chou brought back word that the honourable father of Princess Sofia submitted his august felicitations and solicited the immediate favour of her serene attendance in his study.
Hasty search failed to locate the garments discarded on going to bed and, in the indifference of depression and fatigue, left in a tumble on the floor. All had vanished while Sofia slept; Chou Nu professed blank ignorance of their fate; and apparently nothing had been provided in their stead but Chinese robes, of sumptuous vestments well suited to one of high estate. With these, then, and with Chou Nu's guidance as to choice and ceremonious arrangement, Sofia was obliged to make shift; and anything but unbecoming she found them--or truly it was a shape of dream that looked out from her mirror.
Yet it was with reluctant feet that she left her room, descended the broad staircase to the entrance hall, and addressed herself to the study door. It had been so beautiful, that waking dream the sequel to her night of dreamless sleep, too beautiful to be foregone without regret.
For Sofia had not forgotten, she could never forget, she had merely been successful temporarily in banishing from mind that bitter disillusionment which had poisoned what should have been her time of greatest joy.
To be told, by the father of whose dear existence one had only learned within the hour, that one was the child of a notorious thief and an adventuress ...
It needed more than common fortitude to face renewed reminder of that shame.
Oddly enough, it seemed to help a bit, somehow to lend her courage and assurance, to pass the man Nogam in the hall and acknowledge his bow and smile. Sofia wondered vaguely what it was that made his smile seem so kind; it was entirely respectful, there was nothing more in it that she could fix on; and yet ...
She was able to offer Victor a composed, almost a happy countenance, and to return cheerful assurances to punctilious enquiries after her well-being and her comfort overnight. To the real affection in which he held her, the warmth of his embrace, and the lingering pressure of his lips gave convincing testimony; and in time, no doubt, as she grew to know him better, her response would become more spontaneous and true. Indeed, she insisted, it must; she would school herself, if need be, to remember that this strange man was the author of her being, the natural object of her affections--deserving all her love if only because of that nobility which had enabled him to renounce those evil ways of years long dead.
But to-day--and this, of course, she couldn't understand--a slight but invincible shiver, perceptible to herself alone, attended her submission to paternal caresses; and the eyes were too dispassionate with which she saw Prince Victor. Still, they found little to which fair exception might be taken. If Life had thus far been callously frank with Sofia as to its broader aspects, the niceties of its technique remained measurably a mystery, she was insufficiently instructed to perceive that Victor's morning coat (for example) had been cut a shade too cleverly, or that the ensemble of his raiment was a trace ornate; and where a mind more mondain would have marked ponderable constraint in his manner, she saw only dignity and reserve. But for all that she recognized intuitively a lack of something in the man, the sum of this second impression of him was formless disappointment, she felt somehow cheated, disheartened, chilled.
That she was able at all to dissemble this sense of dashed expectations was thanks in the main to a third party, a stranger whose presence she overlooked on entering, when Prince Victor met her near the door, while the other remained aside, half hidden in the recess of a window.
Directly, however, that Victor half turned away, saying "I have found a friend for you, my dear," Sofia, following his glance, discovered a woman whose every detail of dress and deportment was unmistakably of the fashionable world and whose face carried souvenirs of loveliness as unmistakable.
Smiling and offering her hands, she approached, while Victor's voice of heavy modulations uttered formally:
"Sybil, permit me to present my daughter. Sofia, Mrs. Waring has graciously offered to sponsor your introduction to Society, to guide and instruct you and be in every way your mentor."
"My dear!" the woman exclaimed, holding Sofia's hands and kissing her cheek. And then, looking aside to Victor, "But how very like!" she added with the air of tender reminiscence.
"Oh!" Sofia cried, "you knew my mother?"
"Indeed--and loved her." Sofia never dreamed to question the woman's sincerity; and her charm of manner was irresistible. "You must try to like me a little for her sake--"
"As if one could help liking you for your own, Mrs. Waring!"
"Prettily said, my dear. You have inherited more from your mother than your good looks alone. Is it not so, mon prince?"
"Much more." Victor's enigmatic smile gave place to a look of regret and uneasiness. "Let us hope, however, not too much. Heredity," he mused in sombre mood, "is a force of such fatality in our lives...."
He gave a gesture of solicitude and continued with characteristic deliberation, and that preciseness of diction which he seemed never able to forget, even though deeply moved.
"More than ever, now that Sofia is restored to me, I could wish the past other than what it was, that she might start life with a handicap less cruel of inherited tendencies. But when I reflect that both her parents--"
"Please!" Sofia begged, piteous. "Oh, please!"
"I am sorry, my dear." Victor closed tender hands over those which the girl had lifted in appeal. "It is for your own good only I give myself this pain of warning you against your worst enemy, I mean yourself, the self that is so strange a compound of hereditary weaknesses.... Please remember always that, no matter what may happen, however far you may be led into transgression of the social codes, I shall never reproach you, on the contrary, you may count implicitly on my sympathetic understanding. Never forget, I, too, have known, have suffered and fought myself--and in the end won at a cost I am not yet finished paying, nor will be, I fear, this side my grave."
He sighed from his heart, and bowing a stricken head, seemed to lose himself in disconsolate reverie--but not so far as to suffer the interruption which Sofia made to offer and which he stayed with an eloquent hand.
"You do not understand? But naturally. Let me explain. No: there is no reason why Sybil--Mrs. Waring--should not hear. She is a dear friend of long years, she understands."
With a quiet murmur--"Oh, quite!"--Mrs. Waring ran an affectionate arm round Sofia's shoulders and gently held the girl to her.
"When I determined to forsake the bad old ways," Victor pursued--"this you must know, my dear--I had friends--of a sort--who resented my defection, set themselves against my will and, when they found they could not swerve me from my purpose, became my enemies. That was long ago, but to this day some of them persist in their enmity--I have to be constantly on my guard."
"You mean there is danger?" Sofia asked in quick anxiety. "Your life--?"
"Always," Victor assented, gravely. With a shrug he added: "It is nothing; for myself, I am used to it, I do not greatly care. But for you--that is another matter altogether. I have a great fear for you, my child. That, indeed, is why I never tried to find you till yesterday--believing, as I mistakenly did, you were in good hands, well cared for, happy--lest my enemies seek to strike at me through you. But when I saw that unfortunate advertisement I dared delay not another hour about bringing you within the compass of my protection. Even now, untiring as my care for you shall ever be, I know my enemies will be as tireless in endeavours to rob me of you. You will be followed, hounded, importuned, lied to, threatened--all without rest. If they cannot take you from me bodily, they will seek to poison your mind against me. Therefore, rather than keep you practically a prisoner in your home, I feel obliged to require a promise of you."
Deeply stirred by the melancholy gravity that informed his pose, the girl protested earnestly: "Anything--I will promise anything, rather than be an anxiety to one who is so kind."
"Kind? To my own daughter?" Victor smiled sadly. "But I love you, little Sofia. Nor is it much that I must ask of you: merely that you never go out alone, but only in the company of Mrs. Waring or Mr. Karslake or, preferably, both."
"Oh, I promise that--"
"But there is more: If by any accident you should ever find yourself left alone in public, do not let strangers speak to you, refuse to listen to them."
"And finally: If anybody should ever seek to turn you against me, come to me instantly and tell me about it."
"But naturally I would do that, father."
"Good. I rely upon your discretion and loyalty. At another time I will explain matters in more detail. For the present--enough of an unpleasant subject. You have a busy day before you. At my request Mrs. Waring has arranged to have various tradespeople wait upon you this morning to take your orders for the beginnings of a wardrobe. If you can find something ready-made to wear you will want, no doubt, to spend the afternoon shopping. A car will be at your disposal, and I give you carte blanche. I wish you never to know an unsatisfied need or desire. Still, I am selfish enough to reserve for myself the happiness of selecting your jewels."
"Oh!" Sofia cried, breathlessly. Victor was holding his arms open; and how should she deny him? "You are too good to me," she murmured. "How can I ever show my gratitude?"
Holding her close, Victor smiled a singular smile.
"Some day I may tell you. But to-day--no more. I am much preoccupied with affairs; but Mrs. Waring will take care of you till evening, when I promise myself the pleasure of dining with you both."
At the sound of a knock he put Sofia gently from him, and said in a strong voice:
The door opened, Nogam announced:
Hard on the echo of his name a man swung into the room with an air at once nervous and aggressive--a tall man shabbily dressed, holding his head high--and at sight of Sofia and Mrs. Waring, where he had doubtless thought to find Prince Victor alone, stopped short, betraying disconcertion in the way he instinctively assumed the stand of a soldier at attention, bringing his heels together with an undeniable click, straightening his shoulders, stiffening both arms to rigidity at his sides. And for a bare thought his eyes rolled almost wildly in their deep sockets. Then he bowed twice, from the hips, with mechanical precision, profoundly to Victor, with deep respect to the women.
Victor smothered an exclamation of annoyance.
Unbidden, a word shaped in Sofia's consciousness, a French monosyllable into which the war had packed every shade and gradation of hatred and contempt, the epithet Boche.
Immediately erasing every sign of irritation, Victor greeted the man with casual suavity. "Oh, there you are, eh, Sturm?" Then, as Sofia and Mrs. Waring turned to go, he added quickly: "A moment, please. Since Mr. Sturm to-day becomes a member of the household, acting as my assistant in some research work which I am undertaking, I may as well present him now. Mrs. Waring, permit me: Mr. Sturm. And the Princess Sofia Vassilyevski, my daughter ..."
Mumbling their names after Victor, the man Sturm executed two more bows. At the same time he seemed to remind himself that his soldierly carriage was perhaps injudicious, and forthwith abandoned it for a studied slouch which, in Sofia's sight, was little less than insolent. And unmistakably there was something nearly resembling insolence in the eyes that boldly sought hers: a look equivocal at best and, intentionally or no, wholly offensive in essence; as if the fellow were asserting their partnership in some secret understanding; or as if he knew something by no means to Sofia's credit....
Her acknowledgment of his salute was accordingly cool, and she was glad when a nod from Prince Victor gave her leave to go.