Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
XVII. The Raised Cheque
While the Princess Sofia, Sybil Waring, and Prince Victor motored down from London in the lilac dusk of that dim September day, and the maid Chou Nu accompanied them, riding in front beside a newly engaged Chinese chauffeur, the man Nogam made the journey to Frampton Court by train, and alone.
Alone, at least, in the finer shading of that adjective; aside from the usual assortment of self-contained fellow-travellers in the third-class carriage, he had no company other than his thoughts; a gray and meagre crew, if that pathetic face of middle-age furnished trustworthy reflection of his mind.... So absolute was the submergence of that ardent adventurer who, overnight, had lain awake for hours, a dictograph receiver glued to his ear, eavesdropping upon the traffic of those malevolent intelligences assembled in Prince Victor's study, and alternately chuckling and cursing beneath his breath, aflame with indignation and chilled by inklings of atrocities unspeakable abrew!
If he surmised that he travelled alone in appearance only, it was with no evident concern or astonishment. If his mind was uneasy, oppressed by a nightmarish burden of half-knowledge, guesses, and premonition, it was not apparent to the general observer. His most eloquent gesture was when, from time to time, he tamped an ancient wooden pipe with a fingertip that wasn't as calloused as he could have wished, philosophically sucked in strangling fumes of rankest shag and, ignoring his company in the carriage as became a British-made manservant, returned jaded, gentle eyes to those darkling vistas of autumnal landscape that were forever radiating away from the window like spokes of a gigantic wheel.
Alighting in the first dark of evening at the station for Frampton Court, he suffered himself to be herded, with a half-score more, into the omnibus provided for other bodyservants to arriving guests. Even to these compeers he found little to say: a loud lot, imbued with the rowdy spirit of the new day; whereas Nogam was hopelessly of the old school--in the new word, he dated--though his form was admittedly unimpeachable. And if because of this he was made fun of more or less openly, to an extent that added shades of resignation to his countenance, secretly he commanded considerable respect.
Neither was Victor, with all the ill-will in the world, able to find fault with Nogam's services in his new office. The most finished of self-effacing valets, he knew just what to do and did it without being told; and when he spoke it was only because he had been spoken to or commissioned to convey a message.
Victor watched him from every angle, overt and covert, but had his trouble for his pains; Nogam, observed in a mirror, when Victor's back was turned, went about his business with no more betrayal of personal feeling or independent mentality than when waiting upon his master face to face. Victor could have kicked him for sheer resentment of his pattern virtues. When all was said and done, it was damned irritating. . . .
In the servants' hall he religiously kept his ears open and his mouth shut. And, listening, he learned. For some things said in his hearing were distinctly not pretty, and made one wonder if Prince Victor's deep-rooted confidence in an England mortally cankered with social discontent were not grounded in a surprising familiarity with backstairs morale. Other observations, again, were merely ribald, some were humorous, while all were enlightening.
Not a few of the company had seen domestic service in great houses before the war; they knew what was what and--more to the point--what wasn't. One gathered that this pretentious country home fell within the latter classification. Here, it was stated, anybody could buy his way into favour: the more bounding the bounder the brighter his chances of success at Frampton Court.
War, the ironic, had caused this noble property to pass into the keeping of a distant and degenerate branch of an old and honoured house; and its present lord and lady, having failed to win the social welcome they had counted on too confidently, were doing their silly, shabby best to squander a princely fortune and dedicate a great name to lasting disrepute by fraternizing with a motley riffraff of profiteering nouveaux riches. Other than bad manners and worse morals, the one genuine thing in the whole establishment was, it seemed, the historic collection of family jewels.
This information explained away much of Nogam's perplexity on one score.
After dinner, when the house party began to settle into its stride, he made occasion, aping the other servants, to peep in at a door of the great ballroom, where an impromptu dance had been organized; and was rewarded by sight of the Princess Sofia circling the floor in the arms of a boldly good-looking young man whose taste was as poor in flirtation as in self-adornment.
To Nogam the young girl looked wan and wistful--as if she were missing somebody. And he wondered if Mr. Karslake knew what a lucky young devil he was.
He wondered still more about the present whereabouts and welfare of Mr. Karslake. Prince Victor must have contrived some devious errand to get the young man out and away early that day; for by the time Nogam had looked for him in the morning, Karslake was nowhere to be found; neither had he returned when the party left for Frampton Court--a circumstance which Nogam regretted most bitterly. Watched as he was, it hadn't been possible, that is to say it would have been fatally ill-advised, to have left any sort of message or to have attempted communication through secret channels; and all the while, hours heavy with, it might be, the destiny of England were wasting swiftly into history.
Perhaps it was nervousness bred of this anxiety that, in the end, made Nogam's hand slip. Or perhaps the impatient nature of the man who lay so closely secret within the husk of Nogam decided him upon a desperate gamble. In either event, this befell:
About the middle of the evening Prince Victor happened to look up from an interesting tete-a-tete in the brilliant drawing-room with his handsome and liberal-minded hostess opportunely to espy Nogam staring at him from the remote recesses of the entrance hall.
It was the merest of glimpses; for Victor's casual glance had barely identified the servant when Nogam started guiltily and in a twinkling disappeared; but a glimpse was enough for eyes and a mind alike quick with distrust, enough to assure Victor that Nogam's face had worn an indescribably furtive and hangdog expression, most unlike its ordinary look of amiable stupidity, and widely incongruous with the veniality of his fault.
What the deuce, then, was the fellow up to, that he should glower and dodge like a sleuth in a play?
Promptly Victor became deaf, blind, and numb to the fascinations so generously paraded by Lady Randolph West; and presently excusing himself, left her and sought his rooms.
As he went up the stairs, he saw the door to his bedchamber cautiously opened far enough to permit one eye to spy out and discover his approach. Immediately then the door swung wide, and Nogam ambled into view with an envelope on a salver and an air of childlike innocence, an assumption of ease so transparent, indeed, that only the vision of a child could have been cheated by it.
"Just coming to look for you, sir," he announced, glibly. "Telegram, sir--just harrived."
"Thanks," said Victor, shortly, taking the envelope and marching on into his rooms.
His manner toward his servants was always abrupt. No need to be alarmed by this manifestation of it. Blinking mildly, Nogam trotted at his heels.
Seating himself at an escritoire, Victor opened the envelope with a display of languid interest. Curiosity about the contents of a telegram is ordinarily acute. Victor, on the contrary, sat for a long moment staring thoughtfully at nothing and absently turning the envelope over and over in his hands; while Nogam with specious nonchalance found something unimportant to do in another quarter of the room.
The envelope was damp and warm to the touch. True: nightfall had brought with it a thick drizzle, and Frampton Court was more than a mile from the post-office. On the other hand, the night was as cold as charity; and an envelope recently steamed open might be expected to hold the heat for a few minutes.
Victor thumbed the flap. It lifted readily, without tearing, its gum was wet and more abundant than usual--in fact, it felt confoundedly like library paste, a pot of which, in an ornamental holder, was among the fittings of the escritoire. On the desk pad of blotting paper, too, Victor detected marks of fresh paste defining the contour of the flap.
With a countenance whose inscrutability alone was a threat, Victor took out and conned the telegraph form.
"CONSULTATION SET FOR MIDNIGHT TO-NIGHT TAKING YOUR ADVICE SHALL NOT ATTEND BUT LEAVE FOR BRIGHTON ELEVEN P.M."
A message ostensibly so open and aboveboard that it hadn't been thought worth while to hide its wording under the cloak of a code.
There was no signature--unless one were clever or wise enough to transpose the two final letters and take them in relation to the word immediately preceding. "Eleven, M.P.", however, could mean nothing to anybody but Victor--except a body clever enough to hide a dictograph detector in a turnip. So Victor saw no reason to believe that Nogam, although undoubtedly guilty of the sin of prying, had been able to read the meaning below the surface of this communication.
Nevertheless, undue inquisitiveness on the part of a servant in the pay of Victor Vassilyevski could have but one reward.
"Fetch me an A-B-C."
"Very good, sir."
With Nogam out of the way, Victor enclosed the telegram in a new envelope and addressed it simply to "Mr. Sturm--by hand." Then he took a sheet of the stamped notepaper of Frampton Court, tore it roughly, at the fold, and on the unstamped half inscribed several characters in Chinese, using a pencil with a fat, soft lead for this purpose. This message sealed into a second envelope without superscription, he lighted a cigarette and sat smiling with anticipative relish through its smoke, a smile swiftly abolished as the door re-opened; though Nogam found him in what seemed to be a mood of rare sweet temper.
Taking the railway guide, Victor ruffled its pages, and after brief study of the proper table remarked:
"Afraid I must ask you to run up to town for me to-night, Nogam. If you don't mind ..."
"Only too glad to oblige, sir."
"I find I have left important papers behind. Give this to Shaik Tsin"--he handed over the blank envelope--"and he will find them for you. You can catch the ten-fifteen up, and return by the twelve-three from Charing Cross."
"Very good, sir."
"Oh--and see that Mr. Sturm gets this, too, will you? If he isn't in, give it to Shaik Tsin to hand to him. Say it's urgent."
"Quite so, sir."
"That is all. But don't fail to catch the twelve-three back. I must have the papers to-night."
"I shan't fail you, sir--D.V."
"Deo volente? You are a religious man, Nogam?"
"I 'umbly 'ope so, sir, and do my best to be, accordin' to my lights."
"Glad to hear it. Now cut along, or you'll miss the up train."
Long after Nogam had left the memory of their talk continued to afford Victor an infinite amount of private entertainment.
"A religious man!" he would jeer to himself. "Then--may your God help you, Nogam!"
Some thought of the same sort may well have troubled Nogam's mind as he sat in an otherwise untenanted third-class compartment blinking owlishly over the example of Victor's command of the intricacies of Chinese writing.
He was happily free of surveillance for the first time in his waking hours of many days. The Chinese chauffeur had driven him to the station, and had furthermore lingered to see that Nogam did not fail to board it. And Nogam felt reasonably safe in assuming that he would not approach the house near Queen Anne's Gate without seeing (for the mere trouble of looking) a second and an entirely gratuitous shadow attach itself to him with the intention of sticking as tenaciously as that which God had given him. But the next hour was all his own.
His study of the Chinese phonograms at length resulted in the transformation of his careworn face by a slowly dawning smile, the gleeful smile of a mischief-loving child. And when he had worked for a while on the message, touching up the skillfully drawn characters with a pencil the mate to that which Victor had used, he sat back and laughed aloud over the result of his labours, with some appreciation of the glow that warms the cockles of the artist's heart when his deft pen has raised a cheque from tens to thousands, and he reviews a good job well done.
The torn envelope which had held the message to Shaik Tsin lay at his feet. Nogam had not bothered to worry it open so carefully that it might be resealed without inviting comment; though that need not have been a difficult matter, thanks to the dampness of the night air.
Of the envelope addressed to Sturm, however, he was more considerate; to violate its integrity and seal it up again was an undertaking that required the nicest handling. Nor was it accomplished much before the train drew into Charing Cross.
Outside the station taxis were few and drivers arrogant; and all the 'buses were packed to the guards with law-abiding Londoners homeward bound from theatres and halls. So Nogam dived into the Underground, to come to the surface again at St. James's Park station, whence he trotted all the way to Queen Anne's Gate, arriving at his destination in a phase of semi-prostration which a person of advancing years and doddering habits might have anticipated.
Such fidelity in characterization deserved good reward, and had in it a rare stroke of fortune; for as he drew up to it, the door opened, and Sturm came out, saw Nogam, and stopped short.
"Thank 'Eaven, sir, I got 'ere in time," the butler panted. "If I'd missed you, Prince Victor wouldn't 'ave been in 'arf a wax. 'E told me I must find you to-night if I 'ad to turn all Lunnon inside out."
Pressing the message into Sturm's hand, he rested wearily against the casing of the door, his body shaken by laboured breathing, and--while Sturm, with an exclamation of excitement, ripped open the envelope--surveyed the dark and rain-wet street out of the corners of his eyes.
Across the way a slinking shadow left the sidewalk and blended indistinguishably with the crowded shadows of an areaway.
In a voice more than commonly rich with accent, Sturm demanded sharply:
"What is this? I do not understand!"
He shook in Nogam's face the half-sheet of notepaper on which the Chinese phonograms were drawn.
"Sorry, sir, but I 'aven't any hidea. Prince Victor didn't tell me anything except there would be no answer, and I was to 'urry right back to Frampton Court." Nogam peered myopically at the paper. "It might be 'Ebrew, sir," he hazarded, helpfully--"by the looks of it, I mean. I suppose some private message, 'e thought you'd understand."
"Hebrew, you fool! Damn your impudence! Do you take me for a Jew?"
"Beg pardon, sir--no 'arm meant."
"No," Sturm declared, "it's Chinese."
"Then likely Prince Victor meant you to ask Shaik Tsin to translate it for you, sir."
"Probably," Sturm muttered. "I'll see."
"Yes, sir. Good-night, sir."
Without acknowledging this civility, Sturm turned back into the house and slammed the door. Nogam lingered another moment, then shuffled wearily down the steps and toward the nearest corner.
Across the street the voluntary shadow detached itself from cover in the areaway, and skulked after him. He paid no heed. But when the shadow rounded the corner, it saw only a dark and empty street, and pulled up with a grunt of doubt. Simultaneously something not unlike a thunderbolt for force and fury was launched, from the dark shelter of a doorway near by, at its devoted head. And as if by magic the shadow took on form and substance to receive the onslaught. A fist, that carried twelve stone of bone and sinew jubilant with realization of the hour for action so long deferred, found shrewdly the heel of a jawbone, just beneath the ear. Its victim dropped without a cry, but the impact of the blow was loud in the nocturnal stillness of that bystreet, and was echoed in magnified volume by the crack of a skull in collision with a convenient lamppost.
Followed a swift patter of fugitive feet.
Tempered by veils of mist, the lamplight fell upon a face upturned from a murmurous gutter, a yellow face, wide and flat, with lips grinning back from locked teeth and eyes frozen in a staring question to which no living man has ever known the answer.
The pattering footsteps grew faint in distance and died away, the street was still once more, as still as Death....
In the study of Prince Victor Vassilyevski the man Sturm put an impatient question:
"Well? What you make of it--hein?"
Shaik Tsin looked up from a paper which he had been silently examining by the light of the brazen lamp.
"Number One says," he reported, smiling sweetly, while his yellow forefinger moved from symbol to symbol of the picturesque writing: '"The blow falls to-night. Proceed at once to the gas works and do that which you know is to be done.'"
"At last!" The voice of the Prussian was full and vibrant with exultancy. He threw back his head with a loud laugh, and his arm described a wild, dramatic gesture.
"At last--der Tag! To-night the Fatherland shall be avenged!"
Shaik Tsin beamed with friendliest sympathy Sturm turned to go, took three hurried steps toward the door, and felt himself jerked back by a silken cord which, descending from nowhere, looped his lean neck between chin and Adam's apple. His cry of protest was the last articulate sound he uttered. And the last sounds he heard, as he lay with face hideously congested and empurpled, eyeballs starting from their deep sockets, and swollen tongue protruding, were words spoken by Shaik Tsin as that one knelt over him, one hand holding fast the ends of the bowstring that had cut off forever the blessed breath of life, the other flourishing a half-sheet of notepaper.
"Fool! Look, fool, and read what vengeance visits a fool who is fool enough to play the spy!"
He brandished the papers before those glazing eyeballs.
In an eldritch cackle he translated:
"'He who bears this message is a Prussian dog, police trained, a spy. Let his death be a dog's, cruel and swift.--Number One.'"