Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
XIV. Conference of the Damned
An Irish voice was making the hush of the study musical with mellow cadences.
"This week-end sure, your Excellency--within the next three nights--the little Welshman will be after summoning the Cabinet to sit in secret in Downing Street, with His Most Gracious Majesty attending in person; the emergency extraordinary being thoughtfully provided by this shindig me amiable but spirited fellow-countrymen are kicking up across the Channel--God bless the work!"
The speaker laughed lightly, flashing white teeth at Prince Victor across the width of the paper-strewn table.
"In more Parliamentary language, by the Irish Question. But we'll hear no more of that, I'm thinking, once we've proclaimed the Soviet Government of England."
Victor bowed in grave assent.
"You have my word as to that," he said; and after a moment of thoughtful consideration: "You speak, no doubt, from the facts?"
"I do that. It's straight I've come from the House of Commons to bring you the news without an hour's delay. There's more than one advantage in being an Irish Member these days."
"On the other hand, Eleven"--Victor stressed the numeral as if to remind the Irishman that even a Member of Parliament for Ireland held no higher standing in his esteem than any other underling in his association of anonymous conspirators--"even so, it appears you are uncertain as to the night."
"I'm after telling you it'll be to-morrow night or more likely Saturday--Sunday at the latest." A mildly impatient accent alone betrayed resentment of the snub. "I'll know in good time, long before the hour appointed; and that ought to do, providing you on your part are prepared."
"An hour's notice will be ample," Victor agreed. "We have been ready for days, needing only the knowledge you bring us--or will, when you have it definitely."
The Irishman chuckled.
"It's hard to believe. Not that I'd dream of doubting your statement, sir--but yourself won't be denying you must have worked fast to organize England for revolution in less than three weeks."
"I have been busy," Victor admitted. "But the work was not so difficult ... Seeds of revolution are easily sown in land thoroughly tilled by forces of discontent. And what land has been better tilled? To vary the figure: England is all seething beneath a thin crust of custom and established habit whose integrity a conservative and reactionary government has ever since the war been struggling desperately to preserve. The blow we shall strike within three days will shatter that crust in a hundred places."
"And let Hell loose!" the Irishman added with a nervous laugh.
In a dry voice Victor commented: "Precisely."
"Omelettes," Sturm interjected, assertively, "are not made without breaking eggs."
"And all rivers, no doubt, flow to the sea? What a lot you know, Herr Sturm! Is it the Portfolio of the Minister of Education you've picked out for your very own, after the explosion comes off--if it's a fair question?"
"You Irish are all mad," the German complained, sourly--"mad about laughing. Even me you will laugh at, while you trust your very life to me, while you trust to my genius to make Soviet England possible and Ireland free."
"Faith! you're away off there, me friend. If it was you and your genius I had to trust, it's meself would turn violent reactionary and advise Ireland to be a good dog and come to England's heel and lick England's hand and live off England's leavings. I'll trust nobody in this black business but himself--Number One."
"You have changed your tune since that night at the Red Moon," Sturm reminded him, angrily.
"I had me lesson then and there," Eleven agreed, cheerfully. "And I don't mind telling you, the next time I'm taken with a fancy to call me soul me own, I'll be after asking himself first for a license."
Victor put a period to the passage with a dispassionate "By your leave, gentlemen--that will do." To the Irishman he added: "You understand the danger, I believe, of remaining within the condemned area--that is to say, except in the open air?"
"Can't say I do, altogether."
"It is simple: no person in any house supplied by the mains of the Westminster gas works will be safe for hours after the formula of Thirteen has begun its work. My advice to you is to keep out of the district entirely."
"Faith, and I'll do that! But how about yourself in this house?"
"I shall spend the week-end outside of London," Victor replied, "not too far away, of course, and"--the shadow of his satiric smile was briefly visible--"prepared at any moment to answer the call of my stricken country.... The few who remain here will be provided with the essentials for their protection. Furthermore, a general warning will be sent out to all who can be trusted."
"And the others--?"
"With them it must be as Fate wills."
"Women and children, potential sympathizers and supporters of all classes?" the Irishman persisted in incredulous horror--"all?"
"All," Victor affirmed, coldly. "We who deal in the elemental passions that make revolutions, that is to say, in Life and Death, cannot afford qualms and scruples. What are a few lives more or less in London? These British breed like rabbits."
"I see," said Eleven, indistinctly. He stared a moment and swallowed hard, then glanced hastily at his watch. "I'll be after bidding you good-night," he said, "and pleasant dreams. For meself, I'm a fool if I go to bed this night sober enough to dream at all, at all!"
Victor rang for Shaik Tsin to show him out.
"One question more, if you won't take it amiss," Eleven suggested, lingering. And Victor inclined a gracious head. "Have you thought of failure?"
"I have thought of everything."
"Well, and if we do fail--?"
"How, for example?"
"How do I know what hellish accident may kick our plans into a cocked hat? Anything might happen. There's your friend, the Lone Wolf, for instance ..."
"Have you not forgotten him yet?" Victor enquired in simulated surprise. "Have you neglected to remark that since the blunderer failed to find the Council Chamber that night, when his raid at the Red Moon netted him only a handful of coolie gamblers and drug-addicts, he has left us to our own devices?"
"That's what makes me wonder what the divvle's up to. His sort are never so dangerous as when apparently discouraged." "Be reassured. I promised you three weeks ago his interference would not continue beyond that night. It has not. Lanyard knows I have his daughter, that any blow aimed at me must first strike her."
"Doubtless yourself knows best...."
With the Irishman gone, Prince Victor turned to Sturm.
"You will want a good night's sleep," he suggested with pointed solicitude. "Who knows but that to-morrow will bring your night of nights, my friend?"
He lapsed immediately into remote abstraction, sitting with chin bent to the tips of his joined fingers, his eyes downcast, motionless.
Disgruntled, but afraid to show it, the German cleared away the litter of papers, assorting them into huge portfolios, and took himself off. Shaik Tsin replaced him, moving noiselessly about the room, restoring the reference books to the shelves and stowing the portfolios away in a massive safe hidden behind a lacquered screen. This done, he stationed himself before his master, awaiting his attention, a shape of affable placidity, intelligent, at ease; his attitude not entirely lacking a suggestion of familiarity.
Without changing his pose by so much as the lifting of an eyelash, Victor spoke in Chinese:
"To-morrow afternoon, late, I shall motor down into the country with the girl Sofia. I shall be gone three days--perhaps. I will leave a telephone number with you, to be used only in emergency. As soon as I have left, you will dismiss all the English servants, with a quarter's wage in advance in lieu of notice. Karslake will provide the money."
"He does not accompany you?"
"And the man Nogam?"
Victor appeared to hesitate. "What do you think?" he enquired at length.
"What I have always thought."
"That he is a spy?"
"But with no tangible support for your suspicions?"
"You have not failed to watch him closely?"
"As a cat watches a mouse."
"Yet I agree with you entirely, Shaik Tsin. I smell treachery."
"Nogam shall go with me as my bodyservant. Thus I shall be able to keep an eye on him. Let Chou Nu be prepared to accompany us as maid to the girl Sofia. In my absence you will be guided by such further instructions as I may leave with you. These failing, consider the man Sturm, my personal representative. In the contingency you know of, Sturm will warn you in time to clear the house."
"Of all servants except those whom you may need to guard the man Karslake. These and yourself will be provided with means of self-protection by Sturm."
"I have not yet made up my mind."
"Hearing is obedience."
Victor relapsed into another reverie which lasted so long that even the patience of Shaik Tsin bade fair to fail. In the end the silence was broken by two words:
From a cabinet at the end of the room Shaik Tsin brought a crystal ball supported on the backs of three golden dragons standing tail to tail, superbly wrought examples of Chinese goldsmithing. This he placed carefully on the black teakwood surface at Victor's elbow.
"And now, inform the girl Sofia I wish to see her."
"And if she again sends her excuses?"
"Say, in that event, I shall be obliged to come to her room."