Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
XVI. The Crystal
Like some shy, sad shade summoned up by the malign genius of a haunted chamber, a slender shape of pallor in softly flowing draperies slipped through the silent door and, advancing a few reluctant steps into the soundless gloom, paused and in apprehensive diffidence awaited the welcome that was for a time withheld.
For minutes Victor gave no sign or stir; and in all the room nothing moved but ghostly whorls of smoke writhing slowly upward from a pungent censer of beaten gold.
The great lamp of brass was dark, and there was no other light than a solitary bulb, whose hooded rays were concentrated upon the crystal ball, so that the latter shone with a dead-white glare, somehow baleful, like an elfin moon deeply lost in a sea of sombre enchantment.
Bending forward in his chair, an elbow planted on the table, his forehead resting upon the tips of long, white fingers, Victor's gaze was steadfast to the crystal. Refracted light sculptured with curious shadows that saturnine face intent to immobility.
Too young, too inexperienced and sensitive to be insusceptible to the spell of the theatrical, the girl was conscious of a steady ebb of her new-found store of fortitude, skepticism, and defiance, together with an equally steady inflow of timidity and uneasiness. That sinister figure at the table, absorbed in study of the inscrutable sphere--what did he see there, to hold his faculties in such deep eclipse? Adept in black arts of the Orient as he was said to be, what wizardry was he brewing with the aid of that traditional tool of the necromancer? What spectacle of divination was in those pellucid depths unfolding to his rapt vision? And what had this consultation of the occult to do with the man's mind concerning herself?
Sofia was shaken by a tremor of dread....
And as if her emotion were somehow communicated, arousing him to knowledge of her presence, Victor started, sat back, and with a sigh passed a hand across his eyes. When the hand fell, his face wore its habitual look for Sofia, modified by a slightly apologetic and weary smile.
"My child!" he exclaimed in accents of contrite surprise, "have I kept you waiting long?"
"Only a few minutes. It doesn't matter."
But her voice seemed sadly small and thin in comparison with Victor's rotund and measured intonations.
"Forgive me." Victor rose, nodding to indicate the shining crystal. "I have been consulting my familiar," he said with a light laugh. "You have heard of crystal-gazing? A fascinating art that languishes in undeserved neglect. The ancients were more wise, they knew there was more in Heaven and Earth.... You are incredulous? But I assure you, I myself, though far from proficient, have caught strange glimpses of unborn events in the heart of that transparent enigma."
He took her hands and cuddled them in his own.
She quivered irrepressibly to his touch.
"But you are trembling!" he protested, solicitous, looking down into her face--"you are wan and sad, my dear. Tell me you are not ill."
"It is nothing," Sofia replied--again in that faint, stifled voice. She added in determined effort to subdue her trembling and turn their talk to essentials: "You sent for me--I am here."
"I am so sorry. If I had guessed ..." Enlightenment seemed to dawn all at once. "But surely it isn't because of that stupid business with Karslake? Surely you didn't take him seriously?"
"How should I--?"
"It is too absurd. The poor fool misconstrued my instructions to make himself agreeable--I am so taken up with the gravest matters at present, I didn't want you to feel lonely or neglected--and, it appears, felt it incumbent upon him to flirt with you as a matter of duty. I am out of temper with him, but not unreasonable; I shan't dispense with his services altogether, without more provocation, but will find other work to keep him busy and out of your way. You need fear no more annoyance from that quarter."
"I was not annoyed," Sofia found heart to contend. "I--like him."
"Nonsense!" Victor's laugh was rich with derision. "Don't ask me to believe you were actually touched by the fellow's play-acting. You--my daughter--wasting emotion on a mere commoner! The thing is too ridiculous. Oblige me by thinking no more about it. I have better things in store for you."
"Better than--love?" the girl questioned with grave eyes.
"When the time comes for that, you shall find a worthier parti than poor Karslake, well-meaning though he may be. Moreover, you heard--forgive me for reminding you--there was not an ounce of sincerity in all his philandering for you to hold in sentimental recollection. So--forget Karslake, please. It is a duty you owe your own pride and my dignity; it is, furthermore, my wish."
She bowed her head, that he might not see the reflection in her face of the glow that warmed her bosom, where Karslake's letter nestled. But Victor took the nod for the word of submission, and patted her shoulder with an indulgent hand, guiding her to a chair close by his.
"Sit down, my dear. I want to explain why I asked you to come to me at this late hour--never dreaming my message would find you so overwrought.... You quite see how needless it was to permit yourself to be upset by such a trifling matter, don't you?"
"Oh, quite," Sofia murmured, with gaze fixed on the interlacing fingers in her lap.
"That is sensible." Offering her shoulder one last accolade of approbation, Victor moved toward his own chair. "And now that you are here, we may as well have our little talk out," he continued, but broke off to stipulate: "If, that is, you are sure you feel up to it?"
"Yes," Sofia assented, but without moving.
"I am not so sure. Perhaps a glass of wine might do you good."
"Oh, no!" the girl protested--"I don't need it, really."
But Victor wouldn't listen; and disappearing into shadowed distances, returned presently with a brimming goblet.
"Drink this, dear. It will make you feel quite fit again."
Obediently, Sofia raised the goblet to her lips.
"You have never tasted a wine like that," Victor insisted, smiling down at her.
It was true enough, what he claimed; though it had something of character of a sound old Madeira, this wine had more, a surpassing richness, a fruitiness in no way cloying, a peculiarly aromatic taste and fragrance, elusive and provoking, with a hint of bitterness never to be analyzed by the most experienced palate.
"What is it?" Sofia asked after her first sip.
"You like it, eh? An old wine of China, unknown to Western Europe." Victor gave it a musical name in what Sofia took to be Chinese. "Outside my cellars, I'll wager there's not another bottle of it this side of Constantinople. Drink it all. It will do you good."
He seated himself. "And now my reason for wishing to talk with you to-night.... A note came by the last delivery from Lady Randolph West. You met her, I understand, through Sybil Waring, a few days ago. She was apparently much taken with you."
"She is very kind."
Victor had found a sheet of notepaper and, bending to the light, was searching its scrawled lines with narrowed eyes.
"'Too lovely,' she calls you--and quite justly, my dear. Yes; here it is: 'Too lovely for words.' And she wants me to bring my 'charming daughter' down to Frampton Court for this week-end."
Sofia said nothing, but put her half-empty glass aside. The wine had done her good, she thought. She felt better, stronger, mentally more alert, and at the same time curiously soothed.
Victor refolded the note and tapped the table with it, holding Sofia with speculative eyes.
"It should be amusing," he said, thoughtfully, "a new experience for you. Elaine--I mean Lady Randolph West, of course--is a charming hostess, and never fails to fill Frampton Court with delightful people."
"I'm sure I should love it."
"I am sure you would. And yet ... I may have been a little premature, since I have already written accepting the invitation." He indicated an addressed envelope face up on the table. "But on second thoughts, it seemed perhaps wiser to consult you first."
"But if it is your wish, I must go," Sofia replied, mindful of Karslake's injunction not to oppose Victor. "What have I to say--?"
"Everything about whether we accept or do not--or if not everything, at least the final word. I must abide by your decision."
"But I shall be only too glad--"
"Think a moment. It might be wiser not to go. You alone can say."
"I don't quite understand ..."
Victor sighed. "It is a painful subject," he said, slowly--"one I hesitate to reopen. But we can never profit by closing our minds to facts; I mean, to the reality of the danger which is always with us, since it is within us."
"What danger?" Sofia enquired, sullenly, knowing the answer too well before it was spoken.
"The danger of sudden temptation to indulge the lawless appetites with which heredity has endued us--me from the nameless forebears whom I never knew, you directly from parents both of whom boasted criminal records."
"I don't believe it!" Sofia declared, passionately--"I can't believe it, I won't! Even if you are--"
She was going on to say "if you are my father," but caught herself in time. Had not Karslake warned her in his note: "Your only safety now lies in his continuing to believe that you are unsuspicious." She continued in a tempest of expostulation whose fury covered her break:
"Even if you were once a thief and my mother--my mother!--everything vile, as you persist in trying to make me believe--God knows why!--it is possible I may still have failed to inherit your criminal tendencies; and not only possible, but true, if I know myself at all. For I have never felt the temptation to steal that you insist I must have inherited from you--nor any other inclination toward things as mean, contemptible, and dishonourable as they are dishonest!"
With only his slow, forbearing smile by way of comment, Victor heard her out, but when she paused to reassort her thoughts, lifted a temporizing hand.
"Not yet, perhaps," he said, gently. "There is always the first time with every rebel against man-made laws. But, where the predisposition so indubitably exists, it is inevitable, soon or late it must come to you, my dear--the time when the will is too weak, temptation too strong. Against it we must be forever on our guard."
"I am not afraid," Sofia contended.
"Naturally; you will not be before the hour of ordeal which shall prove your strength or your weakness, your confidence in yourself, or my loving fears for you."
Sofia gave a gesture of weariness and confusion. What did it matter? If he would have it so, let him: it couldn't affect the issue in any way, what he believed, or for his own purposes pretended to believe. Had not Karslake promised ...
She tried to recall precisely what it was that Karslake had promised, but found her memory of a sudden singularly sluggish. In fact, her mind seemed to have lost its marvellous clarity of those first moments after tasting the wine of China. Small wonder, when one remembered the emotional strain she had experienced since early evening!
"Still," she argued, stubbornly, "I don't see what all this has to do with Lady Randolph West's invitation."
"Only that to accept means to expose you to the greatest temptation one can well imagine."
Sofia stared blankly. Her wits were working even more slowly and heavily than before. And the glare in her eyes from the luminous sphere of crystal was irritating. Almost without thinking, she lifted her glass again; when she put it down it was empty.
"The jewels of Lady Randolph West," Victor went on to explain without her prompting, "are considered the most wonderful in England; always excepting, of course, the Crown jewels."
"What is that to me?"
Resentment sounded in her tone. She was thinking more readily once more, thanks to that second magical draught, but was nevertheless conscious of a general failing of powers drained by her great fatigue. She wished devoutly that Victor would have done and let her go....
"Elaine is very careless, leaves her jewels scattered about, hardly troubles to put them away securely at night. If you should be tempted to appropriate anything, she might not discover her loss for days; and then, again, she might. And if you were caught--consider what shame and disgrace!"
"I think I see," the girl said, slowly, after some difficult thinking. "You don't want me to go."
"To the contrary, I do--but I want more than anything else in the world that my daughter should be sure of herself and fall into no irreparable error."
"But I am sure of myself--I have told you that."
"Then let us fret no more about it, but accept, and go prepared to enjoy ourselves. I will send the letter."
Victor rang, and Shaik Tsin presented himself so quickly that Sofia wondered dully where he could have been waiting. In the room with them, perhaps? It wasn't impossible. The Chinaman's thick soles of felt enabled him to move about without making the least noise.
"Have this posted immediately."
Shaik Tsin bowed deeply, and backed away with the letter. Unless she turned to watch him, Sofia could not say whether he left the room or not.
She offered to rise.
"If that is all ..."
"Not quite. There are certain details to be arranged; and I may not see you again before we leave to-morrow afternoon. We will motor down to Frampton Court--it's not far, little more than an hour by train--starting about half after four, if you can be ready."
"Sybil Waring will tell you what to take, and Chou Nu will see to your packing. Both, by the way, will accompany us. Sybil's maid will follow by train. For myself, I am taking Nogam--having found that English servants do not take kindly to my Chinese valet."
"Yes ..." Sofia uttered, listlessly, wondering why this information should be considered of interest to her.
"And one thing more: I am forgiven? You are not cross with me?"
"Why should I be?"
"Because of what happened this afternoon--when I scolded Karslake for making love to you."
"Oh," said Sofia with a good show of indifference--she was so tired--"that!"
"Believe me, little Sofia"--Victor put out a hand to hers, and held her eyes with a compelling gaze--"boy-and-girl romance is all very well, but there is a greater destiny reserved for you than marriage to a hired secretary, however amiable, personable, and well-meaning. You must prepare yourself to move in a world beyond and above the common hearthstone of bourgeois domesticity."
The girl shook a bewildered head.
"It is a riddle?" she asked, wearily.
"A riddle?" Victor echoed. "Why, one may safely term it that. Is not the Future always a riddle? Nature knows the Future as the Past, but Nature holds it secret, lest man go mad with too much knowledge. Only to the few, the favoured, does she grant rare glimpses through media which she has provided for the use of the initiate--such as this crystal here, in which I was studying your future, when you came in, the high future I plan for you."
"And--you won't tell me?"
"I may not. It is forbidden. Nature deals unkindly with those who violate her confidence. But--who knows?"
He checked himself as if struck by a new turn of thought, and studied the girl's face intently.
"Who knows?" he repeated, as if to himself.
"It is quite within the bounds of possibility," Victor mused, "that you should have inherited some of the psychic power which was born in me. Perhaps--who knows?--to you as well Nature will be supple and disclose her secrets.... If you care to seek her favour?"
"By consulting the crystal."
Sofia's eyes sought that coldly burning stone. Her head was so heavy, she hesitated, oppressed by misgivings without shape that she could name, phases of formless timidity having rise in some source which she was too tired to search out.
But she lingered and continued to stare at the crystal.
"Why not?" Victor's accents were gently persuasive. "At worst, you can only fail. And if you do not fail, it will make me happy to think that you have been given a little insight into my dreams for you."
"Yes," Sofia assented in a whisper--"why not?"
Victor drew her forward by the hand.
"Look," he said "look deep! Divest your mind as nearly as you can of all thought--let the crystal give up its message to a mind devoid of prejudice, its receptiveness unimpaired. Think of nothing, if you can manage it--simply look and see."
Automatically to a degree the girl obeyed, already in a phase of crepuscular hypnosis, her surface senses dulled by the potent "wine of China." And watching her closely, Victor permitted himself a smile of satisfaction as he noted the rapidity with which she yielded to the hypnogenic spell of the translucent quartz; how her breathing quickened, then took on a measured tempo like that of a sleeper; how a faint flush warmed the unnatural pallor of her cheeks, how her dilate eyes grew fixed in an unwinking stare, and slightly glassed....
Under her regard the goblin sphere took on with bewildering rapidity changing guises. Its rotundity was first lost, it assumed the semblance of a featureless disk of pallid light, which swiftly widened till it obscured all else, then seemed to advance upon and envelope her bodily, so that she became spiritually a part of it, an atom of identity engulfed in a limpid world of glareless light, light that had had no rays and issued from no source but was circumambient and universal. Then in its remote heart a weird glow of rose began to burn and grow, pulsing through all the colours of the spectrum and beyond. Toward this she felt herself being drawn swiftly, attracted by an irresistible magnetism, riding the wings of a great wind, whose voice boomed without ceasing, like a heavy surf thunderously reiterating one syllable, "Sleep!" ... And in this flight through illimitable space toward a goal unattainable, consciousness grew faint and flickered out like a candle in the wind.
Behind her chair the placid yellow face of Shaik Tsin appeared, as if materialized bodily out of the shadows. With folded arms he waited, dispassionately observant. Presently Prince Victor nodded to him over the head of the girl. Immediately the Chinaman moved round her chair and, employing both hands, in one instant switched off the hooded bulb and reilluminated the lamp of brass.
As the light died out in the crystal Sofia sighed heavily, and relaxed. Leaden eyelids closed down over her staring eyes, she sank back into the chair, simultaneously into plumbless depths....
Victor made a sound of gratification. Shaik Tsin enquired briefly:
"It is accomplished, then?"
Victor nodded. "She yielded more quickly than I had hoped--worn out emotionally, of course."
"In hypnosis, in absolute suspense of every faculty and function save those concerned solely with the maintenance of existence--in a state, that is, comparable only to the pre-natal life of a child."
"It is most interesting," Shaik Tsin admitted. "But what is the use? That is what interests me."
"Wait and see."
Bending close to the girl, Victor called in a strong voice of command: "Sofia! Sofia! It is I, Prince Victor, your father. Waken and attend!"
A slight spasm shook the slender body, the lips parted, respiration became hurried and broken, the long lashes fluttered on the cheeks.
"Do you hear me? I, Victor, command you: Waken and attend!"
Another struggle, more brief and sharp, ended with the opening of the eyes, which sought and remained steadfast to Victor's, yet without intelligence or animation.
"Do you hear me, Sofia?"
A voice like a sigh rustled on the parted lips, whose stir was imperceptible:
"I hear you...."
"Then heed what I say. My will is your law. You know that?"
Faintly the voice breathed: "Yes."
"Tell me what it is you know."
"Your will is my law."
"You will not resist my will, you cannot. Tell me that."
"I will not resist your will, I cannot."
"Good. I, Prince Victor Vassilyevski, am your father. You believe that. Do you understand? Tell me what you believe."
"I believe that you, Prince Victor Vassilyevski, are my father."
"You will not forget these things?"
"I shall not forget."
"In all things."
"I will obey you in all things."
"Without question or faltering."
"Without question or faltering."
"You recall what arrangements we made this afternoon for to-morrow?"
"Listen carefully. Memorize my wishes with respect to our visit to Frampton Court, remembering that I communicate my will, which you must obey."
The girl remained silent, waiting. Victor took a moment to marshall his thoughts, then proceeded:
"After arriving at Frampton Court, you will make occasion quietly to find out how your room is situated in relation to the boudoir of Lady Randolph West. You will do this without knowing why you do it. You understand?"
"At night, on going to bed, you will go promptly to sleep. After an hour you will wake up, put on a dressing gown and slippers, and proceed to Lady Randolph West's boudoir, taking care not to be observed. Is that clear?"
"Once in the boudoir, you will proceed to the safe where Lady Randolph West keeps her jewels. It will not be locked, she is careless in such matters. Having found the safe, you will open it, take whatever jewels you find therein, and return to your room. All this you will perform with utmost circumspection, taking all pains not to make any noise. In your room you will hide the jewels in your dressing-case. Then you will go back to bed and to sleep. Have you committed all this to memory?"
The sleeping girl answered in the affirmative. Then, to the injunction, "Tell me what you are to do to-morrow night?" she repeated in a toneless voice every item of the programme outlined for her, while Victor nodded in undisguised delight, and Shaik Tsin grinned blandly over her head.
"On waking up to-morrow morning, you will remember nothing of my instructions, but you will carry them precisely as memorized in your subconciousness, and you will carry them out without thought of opposition to my will, understanding that you are without will of your own in this matter. Finally, on waking up on the morning following your abstraction of the jewels, you will remember nothing of the affair until reminded of it by me, and then only this much: That in obedience to irresistible impulse, you stole the jewels. Is that clear? Repeat ..."
Without a mistake the woman in hypnosis iterated the commands imposed upon her.
The impish grin of the latent savage broke through the habitual austerity of Victor's countenance.
"There is no more," he said, "but this: Sleep now, and do not waken before noon to-morrow--sleep!"
With a quavering sigh, the girl reclosed her eyes and instantly relapsed into the sleep of trance which was insensibly in the course of the night to merge into natural slumber.
Victor ironed out his grimace, and signed to Shaik Tsin.
"Bear her back to her room. Instruct Chou Nu to put her to bed and not to wake her up before noon."
"Hearing is obedience."
The Chinaman bent over, gathered the inert body into his arms, and without perceptible effort stood erect. But in the act of turning away he paused and, continuing to hold the girl as easily as if she weighed no more than a child, interrogated the man he served.
"You believe she will do all you have ordered?"
"I know she will."
"Barring accidents, without flaw from beginning to end."
"And in event of accidents--discovery--?"
"So much the better."
"That would please you, to have her caught?"
Shaik Tsin nodded in grave yet humorous comprehension. "Now I begin to understand. If she is caught, that gives you a power over her?"
"And if she is not, when the robbery becomes known, your power over her will be still more strong?"
"And over yet another stronger still."
"The Lone Wolf?"
Victor inclined his head. "To what lengths will he not go to cover up his daughter's shame, if it threatens to become public that she is a thief? I do nothing without purpose, Shaik Tsin."
"That is to say, you have to-night taken out insurance against punishment if this other business fails."
"If it fail, others may suffer, but if necessary the Lone Wolf himself will arrange my escape from England."
"To serve so wise a man is an honour my unworthiness can never hope to merit."
"As to that, Shaik Tsin," Victor said without a smile, "our minds are one. Go now. Good-night."