Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
II. The Princess Sofia
These ladies were young, neither much older than Lanyard, both were very much alive, openly betraying an infatuation with existence very like his own, and both were lovely enough to excuse the exquisite insolence of their young vitality.
As is frequently the case in such associations, since a pretty woman seldom courts comparison with another of her own colouring, one was dark, the other fair.
With the first, Lanyard was, like all London, on terms of visual acquaintance. The reigning beauty of the hour, her portrait was enjoying a vogue of its own in the public prints. Furthermore, Lady Diantha Mainwaring was moderately the talk of the town, in those prim, remotely ante-bellum days--thanks to high spirits and a whimsical tendency to flout the late Victorian proprieties; something which, however, had yet to lead her into any prank perilous to her good repute.
The other, a girl whose hair of golden bronze was well set off by Russian sables, Lanyard did not know at all; but he knew at sight that she was far too charming a creature to be neglected if ever opportunity offered to be presented to her. And though the first article of his creed proscribed women of such disastrous attractions as deadly dangerous to his kind, he chose without hesitation to forget all that, and at once began to cudgel his wits for a way to scrape acquaintance with the companion of Lady Diantha.
Their arrival created an interesting bustle, a buzz of comment, a craning of necks--flattery accepted by the young women with ostensible unconcern, a cliche of their caste. As they had entered in a humour keyed to the highest pitch of gaiety consistent with good breeding, so with more half-stifled laughter they settled into chairs well apart from all others but, as it happened, in a direct line between Lanyard and the man whose repellent cast of countenance had first taken his interest.
Thus it was that Lanyard, after eyeing the young women unobserved as long as he liked, lifted his glance to discover upon that face a look that amazed him.
It wasn't too much to say (he thought) that the man was transfigured by malevolence, so that he blazed with it, so that hatred fairly flowed, an invisible yet manifest current of poisoned fire, between him and the girl with the hair of burnished bronze.
All the evil in him seemed to be concentrated in that glare. And yet its object remained unconscious of it or, if at all sensitive, dissembled superbly. The man was apparently no more present to her perceptions than any other person there, except her companion.
Presently, becoming sensible of Lanyard's intrigued regard, the man looked up, caught him in a stare and, mortally affronted, rewarded him with a look of virulent enmity.
Not to be outdone, Lanyard gave a fleeting smile, a bare curving of lips together with an almost imperceptible narrowing of amused eyes--goading the other to the last stage of exasperation--then calmly ignored the fellow, returning indifferent attention to the progress of the sale.
Since nothing was being offered at the moment to draw a bid from him, he maintained a semblance of interest solely to cover his thoughts, meanwhile lending a civil ear to the garrulous tongue of a dealer of his acquaintance who, having edged nearer to indulge a failing for gossip, found a ready auditor. For when Lanyard began to heed the sense of the other's words, their subject was the companion of Lady Diantha Mainwaring.
"... Princess Sofia Vassilyevski, you know, the Russian beauty."
Lanyard lifted his eyebrows the fraction of an inch, meaning to say he didn't know but at the same time didn't object to enlightenment.
"But you must have heard of her! For weeks all London has been talking about her jewels, her escapades, her unhappy marriage."
"Married?" Lanyard made a sympathetic mouth. "And so young! Quel dommage!"
"But separated from her husband."
"Ah!" Lanyard brightened up. "And who, may one ask, is the husband?"
"Why, he's here, too--over there in the front row--chap with the waxed moustache and putty-coloured face, staring at her now."
"Oh, that animal! And what right has he got to look like that?"
The buzz of the scandalmonger grew more confidential: "They say he's never forgiven her for leaving him--though the Lord knows she had every reason, if half they tell is true. They say he's mad about her still, gives her no rest, follows her everywhere, is all the time begging her to return to him--"
"But who the deuce is the beast?" Lanyard interrupted, impatiently. "You know, I don't like his face."
"Prince Victor," the whisper pursued with relish--"by-blow, they say, of a Russian grand duke and a Manchu princess--half Russian, half Chinese, all devil!"
Without looking, Lanyard felt that Prince Victor's stare had again shifted from the women, and that the mongrel son of the alleged grand duke was aware he had become a subject of comment. So the eminent collector of works of art elected to dismiss the subject with a negligent lift of one shoulder.
"Ah, well! Daresay he can't help his ugly make-up. All the same, he's spoiling my afternoon. Be a good fellow, do, and put him out."
The Briton chuckled a deprecating chuckle; meaning to say, he hoped Lanyard was spoofing; but since one couldn't be sure, one's only wise course was to play safe.
"Really, Monsieur Lanyard! I'm afraid one couldn't quite do that, you know!"