Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
Toward mid-evening the man Victor Vassilyevski and his creature Sturm sat where the lamp of hand-wrought brass made the top of the teakwood table an oasis of light amid a waste of shadows, their heads together over a vast glut of books and papers--maps printed and sketched, curious diagrams, works of reference, documents all dark with columns of figures and cabalistic writings intelligible only to initiated eyes.
They had the study all to themselves. Nevertheless, when they spoke it was in the discreet pitch of those who deal in fatal secrets. At a distance of two paces only a lip-reader could have caught the substance of their communications, and even such a one must have failed unless equally at home in German and in English.
Aside from these occasional and circumspect voices, and the busy rustle of a steel pen in the hand of Sturm, the quiet of the room had a tolerably constant background of sound in a subdued whisper punctuated by muffled clicks, emanating from the bronze casket that housed the telautographic apparatus.
From time to time, as this noise temporarily suspended, Victor would get up, read what the mechanical stylus had inscribed, tear off the paper, and return to his chair.
Some of the messages thus received he made known to Sturm, who invariably acknowledged this courtesy with effusive gratitude, sometimes adding a few words of contented comment. Other messages Victor chose to keep to himself, silently setting fire to them and adding their brittle ashes to those of their predecessors on the brazen tray provided for the purpose. At such times Sturm would bend lower over his work. But Victor was well able to guess what resentment glimmered in the eyes so studiously averted; and his cold, sardonic smile more than once commented, unknown to Sturm, upon the accuracy with which he read the mean workings of his "secretary's" mind.
The buzz of a muted bell presently interrupted the even tenor of their industry, causing Sturm to start sharply, drop his pen, and slue round in his chair, turning to Victor a livid face in which his dark eyes of a fanatic were live embers of excitement.
Without a sign to show he shared or even was aware of Sturm's emotion, Victor deliberately fished from beneath the table a telephone instrument, unhooked the receiver, and pronounced a conventional phrase of greeting. To this he added a short "Yes," and after listening quietly for some seconds, "Very good--in twenty minutes, then." Wasting no more time on the author of the call, he hung up, returned the telephone to its place of concealment, and helped himself to a cigarette before deigning to acknowledge Sturm's persistent stare.
Then, elevating his eyebrows in mild impatience, he made the laconic announcement:
Sturm's mouth twitched nervously, his eyes burned with a keener fire.
"Coming here? To-night?"
"Then"--a gaunt hand described a gesture of agitation--"the hour strikes!"
Victor looked bored.
"Who knows?" he replied, as who should say: "Does it matter?"
"But--Gott in Himmel--!"
"Sturm," Victor interposed, critically, "if you Bolsheviki were a trifle more consistent, one might repose greater faith in your sincerity. But when one hears you deny the Deity in one breath and call on him by name in the next--!"
"A mere mode of speech," Sturm muttered.
"If you must invoke a spiritual patron, why not Satan? Or don't you believe in the Powers of Darkness, either?"
"I believe in you."
"As temporal viceroy of Lucifer? Many thanks! But you were about to say--?"
"Nothing. That is--I was envying your poise, Excellency. You take things so coolly."
"With Eleven coming here to tell us when we are to strike?"
"Why not?" Victor repeated. "We are prepared to strike at any hour. What matters whether to-night or a week from to-night--since we cannot fail?"
"If that were only certain!"
"It rests with you."
"That's just it," Sturm doubted moodily. "Suppose I fail?"
"Why, then--I suppose--you will die."
"I know. And so will all of us, Excellency."
"Oh, no. Undeceive yourself, my friend. I shall survive. You will surely die, and perhaps many others with you; but I would not be Number One if I had turned my hand to this scheme without discounting failure first of all. My way of escape is sure."
"I believe you," Sturm grumbled.
With a languid hand Victor found and pressed a button embedded in the table near the edge.
"You have reason. Whatever my shortcomings, my good Sturm, they do not include hypocrisy; I do not pretend, like your noble Bolsheviki, I am in this business for the sake of humanity or anything but my own selfish ends--power, plunder"--a slight wait prefaced one final word, spoken in a key of sombre passion--"revenge."
"Revenge?" Sturm echoed, staring.
"I have more than one score to pay out before I can cry even with life ... one above all!"
Studying intently that darkened face, and misled by its look of abstraction, Sturm was guilty of the indiscretion of his malicious smile.
"The Lone Wolf?"
Victor turned weary eyes his way, and under their black and lustreless regard the smile merged swiftly into a grin of nervous apology.
"You are shrewd," Victor observed, thoughtfully. "Be careful: it is a dangerous gift."
The man Nogam gently opened the door and approached the table, stopping just outside the area of illumination shed by the shaded lamp. But since Victor continued to smoke absently, paying no attention, Nogam resigned himself to wait with entire patience: the perfect pattern of a servant tempered by long servitude to the erratic winds of employers' whims; efficient, assiduous, mute unless required to speak, long-suffering.
Victor addressed him suddenly, in a sharp voice that drew from Sturm a glitter of eager spite.
"Where is the Princess Sofia?"
"In 'er apartment, sir."
"And Mr. Karslake?"
"Then be good enough to send Shaik Tsin to me."
"And, Nogam!"--the servant checked in the act of turning--"I shan't need you again to-night."
"'Nk you, sir."
When Nogam had left the room, Sturm, remarking the slight frown that knitted Victor's brows, ventured an impertinence couched in a form of respectful enquiry:
"Excellency, perhaps you trust that fellow too much, hein?"
"You think so?"
"He is too perfect, if you ask me--never makes a false move."
"Either he is what he seems, in which event a false move would be against nature; or he is not, and knows one slip would mean his death."
"Still, I maintain you trust him too much."
"The freedom of your house, the opportunity to spy, to get to know who comes to see you and when, to listen at doors."
"You have caught him listening at doors?"
"Not yet. But in time--"
"I think not. I don't think he has to."
"You mean," Sturm stammered, perturbed, "you think he knows--suspects?"
"I think he is one thing or the other: merely Nogam, or one of the greatest of living actors. In either case he is flawless--thus far. But if not merely Nogam, he will have a subtler means of eavesdropping than by listening at doors."
"Make your mind easy about that. This room is searched regularly by Shaik Tsin. So is Nogam's. It is certain there is neither a dictograph installed here nor any means at Nogam's disposal for connecting with a dictograph installation. Indeed, so closely is Nogam watched, and by more cunning eyes than mine--sometimes I begin to be afraid he is simply what he seems."
"Then you do suspect him!"
"My good Sturm, I suspect everybody."
Sturm pondered this before pressing his point again.
"Karslake found the fellow for you," he suggested at length.
"Has been guilty of nothing more treacherous than falling in love with Sofia."
"Your daughter, Excellency!"
"The young woman seems content to call herself that.... Can't say I blame Karslake."
"But do you forgive him?"
"Ah, that is another matter. Mine is not a forgiving nature, Sturm--not even toward excessive shrewdness."
Victor took up a docket of papers, and Sturm, mumbling an apology, gave himself up to jealous brooding till he forgot the broad hint he had received.
"If I can satisfy you that Nogam is untrustworthy--" he began, meaning to continue: Karslake will stand his proved accomplice.
But Victor would not let him finish. "Nothing could please me more," he interrupted. "Do so, by all means--if you can--and earn my everlasting gratitude."
Sturm questioned him with puzzled eyes.
"I ask no greater service of any man," Victor elucidated with a smile that made Sturm shiver, "than proof that Nogam is what I suspect him of being." A hand extended upon the table unclosed and closed slowly, with fingers tensed, like a murderous claw. "I want no greater favour of Heaven or Hell--!"
He broke off abruptly. Having entered noiselessly in his padded shoes, Shaik Tsin now stood before Victor, offering a low obeisance.
"You took your time," Victor grumbled. And Shaik Tsin smiled serenely. "I want you to tend the door to-night," Victor pursued. "Eleven is expected at any moment. You need not announce him, simply show him in."
"Hearing is obedience."
"Wait"--as the Chinaman began to bow himself out--"Karslake is still in his room, I suppose?"
"Has just gone to his."
"When did you last search their quarters?"
"And of course found nothing?" Shaik Tsin bowed. "Make sure neither leaves his room to-night. Set a watch outside each door."
"I have done so."
Victor gave a sign of dismissal.