Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
X. Victor Et Al
Those first few weeks of emancipation from the ennui of existence at the Cafe des Exiles were so replete with wonders that Sofia lived largely in a beatific state of breathless excitement, devoting the best part of her days to thoughtless flying from delight to new delight, and going nightly to her bed so healthily tired that she slept like a top and never once awakened to memories of disturbing dreams.
Perhaps her pleasure burned the brighter for its dark, ambiguous background--those many questions which Prince Victor persisted in leaving unanswered. Sofia knew bad times of perplexity and depression, when the price of translation from drudge to princess seemed a sore price to pay.
And yet, required to state the cost to her in terms explicit, she must have hesitated lest she appear ungrateful in complaining, who hardly needed to express a wish to have it granted, who indeed knew many a wish realized in fact before she was fully aware of its inception in her private thoughts.
All those lovely material things of life which her famished girlhood had ached for so hopelessly now were hers in abundant measure, and all the less tangible things, too, so requisite to the happiness of women in a worldly world--or nearly all. Frocks she had, with furs and furbelows no end; flowers and flattery and frivolities; freedom within limitations as yet not irksome; jewels that would have graced an imperial diadem--everything but the single essential without which everything is hollow nothing and life itself only the dreaming of a dream.
The one lack known to the Sofia of those days was the lack of Love.
She had gone so long longing to love, questing blindly and vainly for some human being to whom her affection would mean something vital and dear--it seemed cruel that her longing must be still denied. As it had been with Mama Therese, it was now with the romantic father so newly self-declared. She wanted desperately and tried her best to love Victor as his daughter should; and that he cared for her profoundly she knew and never questioned; yet when she searched her secret heart Sofia discovered no feeling for the man other than a singular form of fear. His look, his tone, his manner, his presence altogether, inspired a nameless sort of shrinking, inarticulate apprehensions, and mistrust which the girl found at once utterly unaccountable and dismally disappointing; so that, with every wish and will to do otherwise, she found herself involuntarily making excuse of trivial interests to keep out of Victor's way and, when there was no escaping, sitting silent and ill at ease in his society, or seizing on some slender pretext, it didn't matter what, to inveigle into their company a third somebody, it didn't matter whom--Mrs. Waring, Karslake, even the unspeakable Sturm.
Nevertheless, there were times, far too many of them, too, when of a sudden Victor would forsake his occult preoccupations and, unceremoniously upsetting whatever arrangements Sofia might have made with Mrs. Waring or Karslake, would find other pleasures of his own invention for her to share with him alone: long motor jaunts through the English countryside, apparently his favourite recreation; a box all to themselves at a theatre, where Victor would sit watching the girl with a fascination only rivalled by her fascination with the traffic of the boards; curiously constrained little dinners a deux in fashionable restaurants; morning rides in Rotten Row, where it oddly appeared that Victor knew everybody, whereas not one in five hundred seemed to know him--or to care to know him.
Sofia, indeed, was often puzzled to account for what to her appeared to be an almost pathetic eagerness on the part of Victor, in strange accord with his lofty pretensions, to claim acquaintanceship with and win the recognition even of persons of the utmost inconsequence. And she remarked, too, that his temper was apt to be raw in sequel to their excursions into the haunts of the well-known. But it was for other reasons altogether that she came to dread them most.
For one thing, Victor's conversation was ordinarily rather dull; at best, the reverse of exhilarating. And in spite of her unquestioning acceptance of him as her father, he remained to Sofia actually a new acquaintance; in effect, a strange man. And from strangers, more than from relatives with whose minds one is presumably on terms of close intimacy, one is warranted in expecting something in the way of mutual stimulation through the opening of new perspectives of experience, thought, and feeling. Whereas--with Sofia, at least--Victor seemed unable to talk on more than two subjects, one or the other of which was constantly uppermost in his thoughts.
He never wearied of warning Sofia against the dangers of those moral infirmities which he asserted were hers by legitimate inheritance; and which, if Victor were right in his contentions, she could hardly hope to overcome without a desperate struggle. She would have to be forever on guard, he insisted, lest the temptation of some moment, not to be foreseen, prove too strong for her latent weakness of character, and commit her, through some unpremeditated act of defiance to the law--most probably an act of theft--to the life of a social outcast.
To do her justice, the girl was consciously not much impressed by this alleged peril. She had never been aware of any failing such as Victor would have endowed her with; so far as she could remember she had never been tempted to commit more venial sins than inhered in lying to Mama Therese now and then in order to escape unmerited disciplining at the heavy hands of that industrious virago; and as for thieving, the very thought of anything of that sort was detestable to Sofia.
But unconsciously, no doubt, the everlasting iteration of Victor's admonitions had its purposed effect upon that sensitive and impressionable spirit.
Then, too, by degrees, but all too soon, it became manifest that the memory of his passionate attachment for her mother possessed Victor to the point of monomania. It was only with an effort that he could force himself to talk to Sofia on other subjects. He thought of nothing else while with her; if she read his eyes aright, often glimpses of weird light flickering in their opaque depths, like heat lightning of a murky summer's night, fairly frightened her, and she knew a shuddering perception of the possibility that Victor was at times in danger of confusing the daughter with the mother.
"Never was there such resemblance," he once uttered, in a stare. "You are more like her than she herself!"
Sofia was pardonably puzzled, and looked it.
"I mean, you re-create my vision of the woman I loved and lost--the woman I saw in her, not the woman she was."
"Lost?" the girl murmured.
The gray countenance took on an added shade of sombre passion. "She never understood me, she treated me badly. Once, in a fit of pique, she ran away. I did everything--everything, I tell you!--to win her back, but--"
He choked on bitter recollections--and Sofia was painfully reminded of the Chinese devil-masks in Victor's study. But the likeness faded even as she saw it, under her gaze the twisted features were ironed back into their accustomed cast of austerity.
"Before I could persuade her, you were born.... Then she died."
Sensible though she was of the ellipsis, and afraid it would never be filled in if she interrupted, Sofia could not help uttering a sound of regret and pity for the lot of the mother she had never seen, whose untimely death had ended a life accounted unendurable as Victor's wife, for reasons unknown but none the less, to the daughter, vaguely and lamentably understandable.
For Sofia by now had passed the stage of pretending to herself that she was not happier away from her father.
Victor mistook the nature of the feeling that swayed the girl--took to himself the sympathy excited by his revelations.
"But do not grieve on my account. Is not that which was lost restored again to me? In you my old love lives once more ... little Sofia!"
He caught and pressed a hand that rested on the cloth between them. (They happened that night to be dining at the Ritz.) And Sofia re-experienced that inevitable, hateful flinching with which she was growing too familiar.
She dropped her head that her eyes might not betray her.
"People will see ..."
"What if they do? Those who know us will hardly see any wrong in my squeezing the hand of my own daughter; and the others--not that they matter--will only think me the luckiest dog alive--as I am!"
Chuckle and smirk both were indescribably odious, reminding Sofia of the creature Sturm; he had a laugh like that for her, on the rare occasion when chance propinquity encouraged the Boche to begin one of his uncouth essays in flirtation.
Sturm's attitude, in truth, perplexed Sofia to exasperation; that is to say, as much as it offended her. For Victor the man seemed to entertain an exaggerated yet deeply rooted respect, approaching actual awe, which he tried his best to carry off with a swagger; for to hold anybody in any degree of deference was, one judged, somehow deplorable, even shameful, in the code of Sturm; but in Victor's presence the fellow's bravado would quickly wilt into hopeless servility, he would cringe and crawl like a dog currying the favour of a harsh master.
Nevertheless, Victor's daughter seemed to be no more than fair game, in Sturm's understanding, and a source of supercilious amusement but thinly veiled or not at all. Alone with the girl, Sturm put on the airs of a Prussianized pasha condescending to a new odalisque.
Sofia held the animal in a deadly loathing which, betrayed in word or look or gesture, animated in him only a spirit of derision. In the absence of Victor, Sturm's eyes were ever ironic, his bows and leers mocking, his speeches flavoured with clumsy sarcasm; from which it resulted that the girl never quite forgot the impression which he had managed to convey in those few moments of their first encounter, that Sturm knew something she ought to know but didn't, and was meanly jeering at her in his sleeve.
What virtues Victor Vassilyevski perceived in the man passed comprehension. But so did most of Victor's whims and ways. What riddle more obscure than that portentous business which permeated the atmosphere of the establishment with the taint of stealth and terror?--the famous "research work" that kept Victor closeted with Sturm in his study daily for hours at a time, often in confabulation with others of like ilk, men of furtive and unprepossessing cast who came and went by appointment at all hours, but as a rule late at night!
Into these conferences, Sofia observed, Karslake was never summoned. She wondered why. He was, as she saw him, so unquestionably the better man, everything that Sturm was not, open of countenance, fair of temper and tongue, well-bred and well-mannered, light of heart and high spirited, and at the same time dependable, with metal of sincerity and earnestness like tempered steel in his character--or Sofia misread him woefully.
She had been quick to see the man behind the misleading little moustache. And already she was beginning to count that amusement tame which Karslake did not share.
Mrs. Waring was undeniably a dear. Sofia could hardly be grateful enough to the happy chance which had cast that lady for the role of her chaperone; lacking her guidance the girl must have been innocently guilty of many a gaucherie in ways new and strange to untried, faltering feet. And it was to her alone that Sofia owed the slow but constant widening of her social horizon. For Sybil Waring, it seemed, quite literally "knew everybody"; and Sofia soon learned to count it an off day when Sybil failed to present her protegee to the notice of somebody of position and influence.
Most of these persons were women with sounding names and the solid backing of much money conspicuously in evidence--matrons of the younger and more giddy generation which was just then so busily engaged in providing material for the most hectic chapters of London's post-war social history. But Sofia was scarcely qualified to be critical or to guess that they were climbers equally with herself, and that if their footing had been of older establishment the name of Vassilyevski would have rung sinister echoes in their memories, deafening them to the rich allure inherent in the title of princess.
So she was fain to accept them all at their own valuation, and thought most of them entirely charming. And though she had hardly had time as yet to progress beyond the introductory stages of chance meetings and informal little teas in public, she began clearly to descry enchanting vistas of better days to come, when the Princess Sofia Vassilyevski would have not only teas but dinners and dances given in her honour, and would be asked to spend gay week-ends in the country houses of the people with whom she contracted the stronger friendships.
But for the immediate present, and especially in the paramount business of having a good time, Karslake was fairly a necessity. He thought of everything and forgot nothing, was ever fertile of fresh expedient if the pastime of a moment began to pall, and was capable of sustained fits of irresponsible gaiety which enchanted Sofia, so well did they chime with her own eagerness for sheer fun.
Decidedly she would have been lost without Sybil Waring; but without Karslake she would have been forlorn.