Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
She had not thought, of course, of going down to dinner; she had, instead, sent Victor word simply that she begged to be excused from joining him for that meal. Then, unable longer to endure Chou Nu's efforts to comfort or distract her, Sofia had stepped out of her street frock and into a negligee and, dismissing the maid, returned to the chaise-longue upon which, in vain hope of being able to cry out the wretchedness of her heart, she had thrown herself on first gaining the sanctuary of her room.
For hours, she did not guess how many, she scarcely stirred. Neither was the blessed boon of tears granted unto her. Alone with her immense and immitigable misery, she lay in darkness tempered only by the dim skyshine that filtered through the window draperies; hating life, that had no mercy; hating the duplicity that had led Karslake into making untrue love to her, but inexplicably not hating Karslake himself, or the enshrined image that wore his name; hating herself for her facile readiness to give love where all but the guise of love was lacking, and for knowing this deep hurt where she should have felt only scorn and anger; but hating, most of all, or rather for the first time discovering how well she hated, him to whom unerring intuition told her she owed this brimming measure of heartbreak and humiliation, the man who called himself her father.
For if Karslake had done her a cruel wrong in winning her avowal of the love that had been growing in her heart these many weeks, while he was merely amusing himself or serving a secret purpose--whose was the initial blame for that?
Who had egged Karslake on, as he had asserted, "to win her confidence," leaving to him the choice of means to that end?
The formulation of this question marked the turning point in Sofia's descent toward the nadir of shame and anguish; from the moment its significance was clearly apprehended (but it took her long to reach this stage) the complexion of her thoughts took on another colour, and the smart of chagrin was soothed even as the irritation excited by critical examination of Victor's conduct grew more acute.
Why should the self-styled author of her being have thought it necessary, or even wise or kind, to commission a paid employee to win his daughter's confidence?
What had rendered the conquest of her confidence so needful in his sight?
What had made him think Sofia would prove loath to resign it to him, or more likely to give it to another?
Why had Victor hesitated to bid for her confidence with his own tongue, on his own merits?
One would think that, if he were her father--
Sofia sat up sharply, her young body as taut as her temper. Pulses and breathing quickened, intent eyes probed the shadows as if she thought to wrest from them a clue to the mystery of her status in the household of Victor Vassilyevski.
What proof had she that he was her father?
None but his word.... Well, and Karslake's.... None that would stand the test of skepticism, none that either sentiment or reason could offer and support. Certainly she resembled Prince Victor in no respect that she could think of, not in person, not in mould of character, not in ways of thought. From the very first she had been perplexed, and indeed saddened, by her failure, her sheer inability, to react emotionally to their alleged relationship. And surely there must exist between parent and child some sort of spiritual bond or affinity, something to draw them together--even if neither had never known the other. Whereas she on her part had never been conscious of any sense of sympathy with Victor, but only of timidity and reluctance which had latterly manifested in unquestionable aversion. And then there was his attitude toward her, raising a question so repugnant to her understanding that never before to-night had Sofia admitted its existence and given it the freedom of her thoughts.
She had seen men, in the Cafe des Exiles, toast their mistresses with such looks as Victor Vassilyevski reserved for the girl whom he claimed as his child.
What, then, if he were not her father?
What if he had only pretended to paternal rights in furtherance of some deep scheme of his?--perhaps thinking to use her as a pawn in that dark plot which he was forever brewing in his study (with canaille like Sturm for collaborators!) that mysterious "research work" that flavoured the atmosphere of the house with a miasmatic reek of intrigue, stealth, and fear--perhaps (more simply and terribly) designing in his own time and way to avenge himself upon the daughter for the admitted slights he had suffered at the hands of the mother, that poor dead woman whose fame he never ceased to blacken while still her memory was potent to kindle fires in those eyes otherwise so opaque, impenetrable, and lightless!
Now Sofia found herself unable to sit still; only through action of some sort could she hope to win any measure of ease for brain and nerves. A thought was shaping, claiming precedence over all others, the thought of flight; bred of the feeling that, as long as she remained in ignorance of the exact truth concerning their relationship, it was impossible for her to remain longer under Victor's roof, eating his bread and salt, schooling herself to suffer his endearments whose good faith she could not help challenging, who inspired in her only antipathy, fear, and distrust.
It seemed clear beyond dispute that she must leave his protection, this very night, before he could guess her mind and move to check her.
Sofia swung her feet down to the floor. One of her silken mules had fallen off. Semi-consciously she groped for it with stockinged toes. As the inanimate will, the mule eluded recapture with impish ease. But beneath her foot something rustled and crackled lightly. She bent over and picked it up: a square white envelope, sealed.
Switching on a lamp near by, she examined her find. It carried no address. How it could have got there she could not imagine ... unless Chou Nu had dropped it by inadvertence, which seemed as far-fetched as to suppose she had left it there by design; for that would mean Chou Nu had been bribed to convey a surreptitious note to her mistress; and Sofia knew that the Chinese girl was at once too loyal to her "second-uncle," and too much in awe of "Number One," to be corruptible.
None the less, there the envelope was; and nobody but Chou Nu had entered the room since Sofia had come straight from the study to it, late in the afternoon.
It was just possible, however--Sofia's eyes measured the distance--that a deft hand and a strong wrist might have slipped the envelope under the door and sent it skimming across the floor to the foot of the chaise-longue.
But nobody would have dared do that without a powerful motive for wishing to communicate secretly with Sofia.
She tore the flap and withdrew a single sheet of notepaper penned in a hand she knew too well. Her heart leapt....
I implore you, of your charity, do not condemn me without a hearing because of anything you may have overheard me say. After you left us in the study I saw his eyes watching the door while we talked, and knew from his look that something to please him had happened behind my back. And in the temper he was in only one thing could possibly have pleased him.
I said what I said to him, dear, because I had to--or lose the right, dearer to me than life, to be near you, to serve and protect you. I lied to him because I loved you. But I have never lied to you about my love--and only once, through necessity, about anything else. Perhaps you can guess what that lie was, somehow I rather think you do; at least, I am sure, you are beginning to wonder if I told the truth--or knew it, then.
If this sound cryptic, I can only beg you to be patient and charitable until I find opportunity to clear away this one lie which stands between us--and which is, by comparison, almost immaterial, since all that matters is the one great truth in my life, that I love you beyond all telling.
If questions trouble your mind, I beg you do not let him know it. Your only safety now lies in his continuing to believe that you are unsuspicious. Above all, do your best to seem to fall in with his wishes, however strange or unreasonable they may seem. It will be only a few days more before I can claim you for my own, and laugh at his pretensions.
A curious love-letter; yet it was Sofia's first. If it made her thoughtful, it made her illogically happy as well. If it put the issue to her squarely, of loyalty to Prince Victor or loyalty to Karslake, she was unaware that she had any choice of courses. When Shaik Tsin thumped the panels of her door, she crushed the note into the bosom of her negligee before answering.
When one is of an age to love, it is never the parent who gets the benefit of a doubt.