Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
Not yet prepared to admit it even to herself, in her heart Sofia knew she prized the companionship of Karslake for something more than the mere amusement it afforded her: there was a deeper feeling she would not name. For all that, her times of solitude knew dreams quick and warm with the thought of Karslake, his words and ways, the gracious little attentions he had accustomed her to expect of him and which his manner subtly invested with a personal flavour inexpressibly delightful, indispensably sweet.
Nor did she ever quite forget how long he had worshipped with unostentatious devotion at her lowly shrine of the caisse in the Cafe des Exiles, and how shabbily she had rewarded his admiration--never once, in those many months, with so much as a smile--and how unresentful had been his acceptance of her half-feigned, half-real indifference to his existence.
But whenever her reflections took that back-turning she would recall the man who had talked to Karslake in the cafe, that day so long ago, of his own humble past as a 'bus-boy in Troyon's in Paris, and who on leaving had given Sofia herself that odd look of half-recognition tempered by bewilderment.
She tried once to draw Karslake about this acquaintance of his, but Karslake's memory proved unusually sluggish.
"No-o," he drawled after a tolerably long pause for thought--"can't say I place the chap you mean, can't seem somehow to think back that far, you know. One meets such a lot of people, first and last, they talk such a lot of tosh--"
"But it couldn't have been only tosh you were talking," the girl persisted, "because--I remember--you were so keen about keeping what you said secret, you spoke the strangest language together most of the time. I could hear every word"--she had already explained about the freak acoustics of the Cafe des Exiles--"and not one meant anything to me."
"Stupid of me, but I simply can't think what it could have been."
Karslake looked askance at Sofia.
"Since I've heard so much Chinese spoken by the servants--now I come to think of it"--Sofia's eyes grew bright with triumph--"I'm sure it must have been Chinese you were speaking to the man I mean."
"Impossible," Karslake pronounced calmly.
"But you do know Chinese, don't you?"
"Not a syllable."
Sofia opened her lips to protest, but delayed to study Karslake's face intently. He didn't try to escape her scrutiny, he even seemed to court it; but there was a curious, quizzical look in his eyes, those half-smiling lips had a whimsical droop.
"Mr. Karslake!" Sofia announced, severely, "you're fibbing."
"Nice thing to say to me."
"You do speak Chinese--confess."
"My dear Princess Sofia," Karslake protested: "if I had known one word of Chinese I could never have landed my job with your father."
"He expressly stipulated that I should be ignorant of that language."
"What a silly condition to make!"
"Still, I daresay Prince Victor had his reasons."
"I can't imagine what ..."
"Possibly preferred a secretary who couldn't understand everything he said to the servants. I've never pretended to know all Prince Victor's secrets, you know."
After a little pause Sofia asked gently: "Did you really need the job so badly, Mr. Karslake?"
"To get it meant more to me than I can tell you--almost as much as to hold on to it does to-day."
Sofia turned her eyes away at this, and for the rest of the ride--they were homeward bound from a matinee, having dropped Sybil Waring at her flat in Mayfair--kept her thoughts to herself.
Only the most perfunctory civilities passed between them, in fact, until they had been ushered into the study by Nogam, who advised them that Prince Victor had ordered tea to be served there and had promised to be home in good time for it.
The tea service was already set out on a little table beside the fireplace in that room of secrets, whose normal atmosphere of brooding gloom was now the darker for the deepening dusk. Only the tea itself remained to be served, a special rite never performed in that household by hands more profane than those of the major-domo, Shaik Tsin himself. And this last could be counted upon not to put in appearance until Nogam took him word that Victor was waiting.
So, having laid aside her furs and satisfied herself, by a seemingly aimless but in fact exacting survey, that the abominable Sturm was not skulking anywhere in the shadows, Sofia established herself on a lounge that faced the fireplace, while Karslake stood before the fire, looking down with an expectant smile of which she was but half aware.
"Aren't you going to forgive me?" he asked, quietly, after a time.
Sofia withdrew a pensive gaze from the ruddy bed of coals.
"You were kind enough to call it merely fibbing."
"I'm still thinking about that."
In fact, she had been thinking of nothing else. There was so much to be considered. Imprimis, that Karslake had been guilty of practising a deception upon her father. Deceit in itself was one form of treachery. And how often had Victor stressed to her the dangers of his position, surrounded by nameless but implacable enemies who would stick at no infamy to compass his ruin!
But if she told him that Karslake understood Chinese she would lose her friend forever--no question about that. Victor would not hesitate an instant--indeed, Sofia felt sure he was only waiting for some such pretext to get rid of his secretary. She was anything but unobserving, this child of Soho, whose wits had been sharpened in the sophisticated atmosphere of a French restaurant; and more than once she had seen Victor's face duplicate the expression Papa Dupont's had so often assumed on his discovering that some patron of the cafe was taking too personal an interest in the pretty young dame du comptoir. A look of insensate jealousy ...
To risk forfeiting the comradeship that had grown to be so dear? Or to be constructively derelict in her duty as a daughter?
A difficult choice to make; but Sofia made it honestly. In point of fact, she assured herself, coldly, there was no choice, there was only one thing she could do under the circumstances. And she hardened her heart and eyes as she rose to face Karslake on more equal terms.
But when she saw him waiting patiently, with that friendly smile of his she knew so well, she hesitated long enough to permit his anticipating her with a quiet question:
"Well, Princess Sofia?"
And then, amazingly, her tongue betrayed her, the phrases she had framed so carefully vanished utterly from out her mind; and she heard herself saying in rather tremulous accents:
"It's all right. I shan't tell."
"About my understanding Chinese?"
"Then you do care--?"
She was panicky with knowledge that somehow her emotions had managed to slip their moorings and get beyond her handling. It didn't help or mend matters much to hear her own voice stammering:
"Yes, of course, I--I don't want you to--to have to go away--"
Oh, the vanity of trying to hoodwink him who knew so well what she was now for the first time realizing!
"Because you like me a little, Princess Sofia?"
"Why--yes--of course I do--"
"Because you know I love you, dear."
And then she found herself clinging to Karslake; and his lips were warm upon her hands ...
So suddenly and at long last it came to Sofia, that Love for which all her days had been one long weariness of waiting, Love that brimmed with raptures what had been only aching emptiness and made the desert places to blossom as the rose. And the joy of it proved overmastering, sweeping her off her feet and dazing her, leaving her breathless and thoughtless but for the all-obscuring thought--at length she loved, and the one whom she loved loved her!
And for a space she existed in an iridescent dream of happiness, without sense of relation to a material world, forgetful of the flight of time, lost to everything but her lover's arms and voice and lips.
It might have been five minutes, it might have been sixty, before she became aware that Karslake was gently disengaging her hands. "Dearest, dearest!" she heard him say. "We must be sensible. That was the front door, I'm afraid."
The meaning in his insistence presently began to penetrate, if vaguely, and she suffered him to go from her a pace or two. But, still a little blind with the beauty of the revelation that had been granted unto her, nothing that met her gaze seemed to be in true focus except her lover's face: even the countenance of Victor swam into her ken as if blurred by veils of mist, its dour, forbidding look had no significance to her intelligence. Victor himself, for that matter, was a figure without real consequence other than as a symbol of the old order, the tedious old ways of the world from which she had magically escaped.
A ring of sarcastic apology provided the only clue she got to the import of Victor's words. Sobered a trifle, her mental processes somewhat less incoherent, still she knew she would hardly regain her poise until she was alone. And breathing an excuse, she left the room with such dignity as she could muster.
In the hall, with the closed door behind her, she paused to collect herself. Then she missed furs and gloves and handbag and, remembering that she had left them in the study, for some obscure reason imagined she must have them before proceeding to her room.
Much more mistress of herself by now, it never occurred to Sofia that there could be any reason why she should hesitate about returning or feel embarrassed before Victor. True, he had surprised them, Sofia was not at all sure he hadn't actually seen her in Karslake's arms. But what of that? Love like hers was nothing to be ashamed of; and that Victor could reasonably object to her giving her heart to one of his secretaries was something far from her thought just then.
She put a hand to the knob, turned it, and swung the door open--all on impulse--then faltered, transfixed by the tableau before the fireplace.
The door was silent on its hinges, and Karslake's back was to her. Victor, on the other hand, facing both Karslake and the door, unquestionably saw Sofia, but pretended not to, and had his say out with Karslake in a manner bitterly cynical.
"... sadly in error if you flatter yourself I pay you a wage to make love to Sofia behind my back."
"Sorry, sir." Karslake's tone was level, respectful but firm. "Your instructions were, I believe, to win her confidence. Well--I have always found love the one sure key to a woman's confidence. Of course, if I had understood you cared one way or the other--"
Sofia heard no more: unconsciously she had closed the door, at one and the same time shutting from her sight Victor's exultant sneer and from her hearing the words with which the man whom she loved had damned himself irretrievably and dashed her spirit from radiant pinnacles of ecstasy into the profoundest black abyss of shame and despair.
Primitive instinct bade the stricken girl seek her room and hide her suffering there; but the shock had stunned her to the point of physical weakness. Already a hand was pressed above her heart, that ached cruelly; and as she moved to cross to the foot of the staircase her knees gave under her. She clutched the newel-post for support, waiting to find strength for the ascent.
From the shadowed back part of the hall the man Nogam moved hastily into view, his features twisted in a grimace of concern as he recognized the bleak misery of Sofia's face. His voice sounded strangely thin and remote.
"Is there anything the matter, miss?--anything I can do?"
She contrived to shake her head slightly and utter an inarticulate sound of negation, then began slowly to mount the stairs.
Below, Nogam stood watching, in a pose of indecision, as if tempted to follow and offer the support of an arm lest she fall, restrained only by fear of a rebuff. But Sofia's leaden limbs carried her safely to the upper landing, then on to the blessed shelter of her room, where she collapsed upon a chaise-longue and there lay in a stirless huddle, dry of eye but deaf to the plaintive entreaties of Chou Nu and numb to all sensation but the anguish of her humiliated heart.