Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
XVIII. Ordeal
 

Reviewing the day, as she undressed and prepared for bed, Sofia told herself she had never yet lived through one so wearing, and thought the history of its irksome hours all too legible in the lack-lustre face that looked back from the mirror when Chou Nu uncoifed her hair and brushed its burnished tresses.

Though she had slept late, in fact till noon and something after, her sleep had been queerly haunted and unhappy, she could not remember how or why, and she had awakened already ennuye, with a mind incoherently oppressed, without relish for the promise of the day--in a mood altogether as drear as the daylight that waited upon her unclosing eyes.

Main strength of will had not availed to dispel these vapours, neither did their melancholy yield to the distraction provided by first acquaintance with ways of a world unique alike in Sofia's esteem and her experience.

She who had theretofore known only in day-dreams the life of light frivolity and fashion which found feverish and trumpery reflection at Frampton Court, was neither equipped nor disposed to be hypercritical in the first hours of her debut there; and at any other time, in any other temper, she knew, she must have been swept off her feet by its exciting appeal to her innate love of luxury and sensation. But the sad truth was, it all seemed to her unillusioned vision an elaborate sham built up of tinsel, paste, and paint; and the warmth of her welcome at the hands, indeed in the very arms, of Lady Randolph West, and the success her youth and beauty scored for her--commanding in all envy, admiration, cupidity, or jealousy, according to age, sex, and temporal state of servitude--did nothing to mitigate the harshness of those first impressions.

If anything her depression grew more perversely morbid the more she was catered to, courted, flattered, and cajoled. Something had happened, she could never guess what, perhaps some mysterious reaction effected through the chemistry of last night's slumber, to turn her vivid zest in life to ashes in her mouth, so that nothing seemed to matter any more.

Thoughts of Karslake as her lover, recollection of her first deep joy in his avowal and her subsequent passion of shame and regret, re-perusal of his note, that last night had seemed so sweet a thing, precious beyond compare--found her indifferent to-day, and left her so. Try as she would, she failed to recapture any sense of the reality of those first raptures. And yet, somehow, she didn't doubt he loved her or that, buried deep beneath this inexplicable apathy, love for Karslake burned on in her heart; but she knew no sort of comfort in such confidence, their love seemed as remote and immaterial an issue as the menu for day after to-morrow's dinner. Nothing mattered!

She was able even to meet Prince Victor without her customary shiver of aversion; and when she recalled the persistence and enthusiasm with which she had reasoned herself into believing, last night, that he might be another than her father, she came as near to mirth as she was to come that day; but it was mirth bitter with self-derision. Of course he was her father, she had been a ninny ever to dream contrariwise, or that it mattered.

Nor had she met with more success in efforts to find a cause for this drab humour; unless, indeed, it were simply the farthest swing of the pendulum from yesterday's emotional crises, a long swing out of sunlit spaces swept by the brave winds of young romance into a gloomy zone of brooding torpor, whose calm was false, surcharged with unseizable disquiet, its atmosphere electrical with formless apprehensions, its sad twilight shot with lurid gleams no sooner glimpsed than gone.

In this state Sofia's sensibilities were less benumbed than bound in a palsy of suspense not wholly destitute of dread; beneath the lethargic shallows of consciousness lay soundless deeps troubled by sinister premonitions....

Now, retracing stage by stage the record of the day, Sofia became aware that its most poignant moment for her was actually the present, with its keen wonder that she had contrived to survive such exquisite tedium.

She perceived that she had moved throughout like an automaton swayed by a will outside its own; functioning rather than living; performing appointed business, executing prescribed gestures, uttering foreordained observations, and making dictated responses, all without suggestion of spontaneity, and all without meaning other than as means to bridge an empty space of waiting.

Waiting for what?

Sofia could not guess....

She went to bed presently, hoping only to find surcease of boredom; and her head no sooner touched the pillow than oblivion closed down upon her faculties like a dense, dark cloud.

Discreet and well-instructed, Chou Nu turned the night-light down to a glimmer, placed on and under a chair adjacent to the bed a robe of cashmere that wouldn't rustle, and slippers of fine felt with soles of soft leather, in which footfalls must be inaudible--and glided gently from the room.

For sixty minutes its deep hush was unbroken; the even respiration of the girl made no sound, she rested without tossing, without moving a finger.

Then, sleep having held her for precisely one hour by the clock, Sofia opened her eyes, drew in a deep breath, and at once sat up on the side of the bed.

The memory of that hour was not to leave the girl while life was in her; nor was the question it raised ever to be answered in a fashion satisfactory to her intelligence. When later she heard it stated with authority, by men reputed to be versed in psychic knowledge, that a subject in hypnosis cannot be willed to act contrary to the instincts of his or her better nature, she held her peace, but wondered. Was Victor right, then, and the crime he had willed her to commit in final analysis not repugnant to her instincts? Or was it some secret faculty of the soul, telepathy or of its kin, that roused and sent her to keep her rendezvous with destiny?

A riddle never to be read: Sofia only knew that, finding herself awake, she got up, donned negligee and slippers, and set her feet upon the way appointed without its occurring to her that the way was strange, without stopping to question why or whether.

If independent volition, sensible or subliminal, were absent, it could hardly have been apparent. Sofia herself was not aware of its suspense or supersession. She knew quite well what she was doing, her every action was direct and decided, the goal alone remained obscure. She only knew that somewhere, somehow, something was going wrong without her, and her presence was required to set it right.

Letting herself out into the corridor, she drew the door to behind her, but left it unlatched; with what object, she did not know. But the lateness of the hour, the stillness of the sleeping household, made it seem quite in order that she should pause to look cautiously this way and that and make sure that nobody else was astir to spy upon her or challenge the purpose of this as yet aimless nocturnal flitting.

There was nobody that she could see.

Down the corridor, then, never asking why that way, like a ghost in haste she sped, but as she drew near to a certain door found her pace faltering. Sofia knew that door; through it Lady Randolph West herself had introduced the girl to her boudoir, not two hours since, when chance, or Fate, or the smooth working out of malicious mortal machinations had moved the two women simultaneously to seek their quarters for the night. And in the boudoir Sofia had spent the quarter of an hour before going on to her own room and bed, civilly attending to vapid chatter and admiring as in duty bound the admirable jewels of the family.

Now she saw the door a few inches ajar with, beyond it, a dim glow. The circumstance seemed singular, because--now that she remembered--when Sofia had expressed perfunctory curiosity concerning what precautions were taken to safeguard the jewels, Lady Randolph West had airily informed her that she considered insurance to their appraised value plus a stout lock on the boudoir door better than any strong-box as yet devised by the ingenuity of man.

"There's the safe they're kept in, of course," the lady had declared--"but, my dear, a cardboard box will do as well when any burglar who knows his business makes up his mind to get at my trinkets. I never even trouble to lock the thing. I'd rather lose the jewels--and collect the insurance money--than be frightened out of my wits by hearing it blown open. No, thanks ever so: any cracksman skillful enough to pick the lock on the door may bag his loot and go in peace for all of me!"

Impulse, at least she called it that, moved Sofia to approach and cautiously open the door still wider.

Upon the antique writing-desk that housed the safe burned a single lamp of low candle-power. A door that led to the adjoining bedchamber was tightly shut. Sofia's mistrustful eyes reconnoitred every corner of the room, and reckoned it empty. Again obedient to undisputed impulse, she stepped inside and shut the door. The spring-latch of the American lock found its socket with a soft click. Thereafter, silence, no sound in the boudoir, none from the room beyond. But to Sofia the hurried beating of her heart reverberated on the stillness like the rolling of a drum.

Without clear appreciation of how she had got there, she found herself standing over the writing-desk, and discovered what the indifferent light had till now kept hidden, that a false panel in the front of the desk had been thrust back, exposing the face of the safe, and that this last was not even closed.

At the same time she grew conscious that her hands were shaking violently, that her every limb, her whole body indeed, was agitated by desperate trembling. And dully asked herself why this should be ... But didn't hesitate.

Her actions now more than ever resembled those of an unthinking puppet, although she knew quite well what she was doing; and her gestures might have been the fruit of long lessoning at the hands of some master of stage melodrama, so true were they to theatrical convention.

With furtive, frightened glances toward both doors, Sofia dropped to her knees before the safe....

When she stood up again her hands were filled with jewellery, her two hands held a treasure of incalculable price in precious stones.

She paused for a little, staring at them with dilate eyes dark in a pale, rapt face. Her lips were parted, but only her quickened breathing whispered past them. She was trembling more painfully than ever. But she seemed unable to think of anything but the jewels, her gaze was held in fascination by their coruscant loveliness as revealed by the light of the little lamp.

Hers for the taking!

Then, without warning, a tremendous convulsion laid hold on her body and soul, and she was racked and shaken by it, and at its crisis her outstretched hands opened and showered the top of the desk with jewels, then flew to her head and clutched her throbbing temples.

She cried out in a low voice of suffering: "No!"

And of a sudden she was reeling back from the desk, toward the corridor door, repeating over and over on an ascending scale: "No! no! no! no! no!"

Her quaking legs blundered against a chair, her knees gave, she tottered to fall; strong arms caught her, held her safe, a voice she knew yet didn't know in its guarded key muttered in her ear: "Thank God!"

She made no struggle, but her eyes of pain and terror sought the speaker's face, and saw that he was the man Nogam. In extremity of amazement she spoke his name. He shook his head.

"No longer Nogam," he said in the same low accents, and smiled--"but your father, Michael Lanyard!"